NEW YORK — While city officials, factory owners, designers and other Midtown tenants continue to try to hash out plans for rezoning the garment district, a new survey shows how integral the area is to production.
For nearly 200 years, the Midtown West neighborhood has housed the largest concentration of manufacturers, designers and suppliers — the heart of New York City’s garment industry. Manufacturers alone employ more than 7,100 New Yorkers — most of whom are immigrants and women, according to the Garment Center Supply Association Foundation. The 10-week survey of 413 manufacturers operating in 1.4 million square feet of space offered insight into the ongoing debate about rezoning the neighborhood.
At play is about 1 million square feet that has been earmarked for apparel manufacturing and another 1 million set aside for support purposes. While Broadway and Seventh Avenue are the main thruways, the district runs from Fifth to Ninth Avenues stretching from 35th to 41st Streets. New York’s fashion industry sustains 900-plus companies generating $98 billion in annual revenues and creating more than 180,000 jobs.
Earlier this year Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for a $136 million “Made in New York” campus at Bush Terminal in Sunset Park was welcome news to many, but other Midtowners are concerned about how the spotlight on Brooklyn would affect apparel manufacturing. A Garment Industry Steering Committee was formed in May with the objective of engaging stakeholders in the garment district and New York’s fashion and garment industries to devise a plan to ensure that sufficient long-term space in mid-Manhattan remains available for apparel manufacturers in the years to come, and expand upon the city’s existing plans for boosting the sector.
City officials will begin the formal review process of potential rezoning at an Aug. 21 meeting at the offices of the City Planning Commission and the Department of City Planning.
“We receive inquiries on a daily basis from manufacturers interested in moving to our assets in Sunset Park. As we continue our dialogue with industry leaders, we are committed to bolstering garment manufacturing both in the Garment Center and throughout the City,” said Stephanie Baez of the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
Joe Ferrara, president and chairperson of the Garment Center Supply Association Foundation, said, “We were surprised by how much activity still exists in the district.”
Many respondents also indicated that short-term leases — 96 percent are under ones that are five years or less — have been a deterrent to investing in new technology, which can be expensive and difficult to install. Another conclusion was that square footage and employee count could double if extended beyond The Garment Center hub.
As chief executive officer of Ferrara Manufacturing, Ferrara has been based in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. Another eye-opener from the survey was the fact that “relatively new firms” — as in ones that were started in the last 10 years — accounted for one-third of the area’s manufacturing. “We found that interesting because one would think a dying industry would not attract new blood,” Ferrara said.
He also noted the prevalence of Midtown factory workers from Queens. Twenty-seven percent of the factories surveyed said that all of their employees come from Queens, and 84 percent of respondents said some of their workers come from Queens. While other studies have highlighted garment workers from Brooklyn, Ferrara said, “While that’s true, they are not the workers in Midtown Manhattan and their wage levels are very, very different. The type of work they do in Brooklyn is very different from what they do in the garment center which is of the high-skill, high-value variety.”
While the Garment Center Market Rate was reported to be $51 a square foot, the GCSA Survey pegged the average rent for manufacturers at $30.95 a square foot. Ninety-two percent of manufacturers who responded said they have rents of $40 a square foot or lower. The effects of the city’s ever-increasing commercial rents and/or the non-renewal of leases are undetermined, but both factors are expected to have some negative impact on manufacturing in the Garment Center based on anecdotal stories and data.
Although there has been a good deal of discussion about relocating the garment center to other boroughs with Brooklyn’s Liberty Plaza being a leading contender, current Midtown tenants who responded to the survey didn’t sound willing. In fact, 88 percent of them said moving out of the garment center is not an option. More specifically, most said they would rather shut down than move their businesses from customers and workers.
Yeohlee Teng said Thursday, “I think the survey was stellar, very well-done, very thorough and very in the weeds. It covers a broader arena of makers.”
On another front, the Municipal Art Society will be releasing its own Garment Center survey in the next few weeks, which is said to examine the area from more of the human side than the business one, according to individuals briefed on the project.
As a nonprofit, GCSA’s objective is to educate both members and the broader community about how important the district’s composition is and what it looks like, Ferrara said. The group links to a petition opposing rezoning the city’s Garment Center. As of Thursday morning, the Change.org petition bound had 1,452 signatures. Online visitors are told “the most important thing” they can do to support local manufacturing is to call New York City Council member Corey Johnson, since the garment center is part of his district. Johnson’s office declined to comment Thursday.
Salmar Properties co-owner Marvin Schein, who has appealed to city officials to relocate garment manufacturers to Liberty Plaza Industrial in Sunset Park, said the survey is “nothing new. Everybody knows they would like to stay there if they could, but that’s not reality. The rents are going to continue to go up and these spaces are going to continue to get redeveloped. Landlords don’t have an appetite for manufacturing in that area anymore so you’re going to see these people being squeezed out of these spaces.”
Landlords know they could renovate these buildings, make them commercial, residential or hotel space and charge $60 or $70 per square foot, Schein said. “Why wouldn’t I do that if I were that landlord?” he asked. “And the city doesn’t have an appetite to enforce the zoning resolution so what is going to stop this?”
City officials are still considering his proposal to have a condo-type arrangement at Liberty View, Schein said. “I guess if I were in the garment industry, I would want to stay there, too. That’s where their family is. We’re not looking to take one of these guys out and isolate them. We’re looking at taking the whole industry out and putting it in a new campus with much lower rents in an environment that is much more efficient.”