NEW YORK — The decades-long debate about how to modernize the Garment District appeared to be moving forward to more unified ideas last week, but now a few individuals involved with the process are questioning the objectivity of it and recommending a third party get involved to ensure fairness.
The Garment District’s rezoning was approved by the New York City Council in December, and last week 12 members of the Garment District Alliance’s special program committee met to review 22 proposals geared toward rejuvenating local apparel manufacturing. The GDA has as much as $25 million to fund programs that support manufacturing and fashion production in the area over the next 10 years. The group’s recent meeting culled the candidates to four parties, which would be advised to collaborate to avoid any overlap.
No formal action was taken, though the formation of a subcommittee was agreed upon, according to a few participants, including GDA president Barbara Blair. A date for a future meeting had not been set at that time. A few participants, who asked not to be identified, questioned whether the GDA should be overseeing the funding of apparel manufacturing initiatives after the group has welcomed so many nonfashion companies and businesses into the neighborhood. Blair noted last week that only five percent of the district’s tenants are fashion businesses. However, overall there are the strongest job numbers to date — 195,000 today, compared with 64,000 in 1995, the first year the Business Improvement District started tracking numbers.
One source cited a 2017 survey that pegged fashion-related jobs at 45 percent and had been released by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
The plan to free up neighborhood commercial space for nonfashion tenants included the prospect of tax incentives for New York-made brands, a designated building for apparel production to be run by a nonprofit entity and other incentives to bolster local goods. A few members of the special program committee said afterward that they were not certain what the status of those are, with one implying that they should know and the fact that they didn’t was indicative of the nebulousness of the situation.
One member of the SPC, Adam Friedman, executive director for the Pratt Center for Community Development, said, “There is a sense of urgency to launching the programs because the zoning that protected apparel manufacturers has already been changed. These programs along with ensuring space for production through tax incentives and an acquisition by an organization dedicated to strengthening the apparel industry were meant to provide alternatives to the zoning.”
He noted that the New York City Economic Development Corp. has already committed funding for the acquisition of a building that would be earmarked for apparel production. Friedman said, “It is both urgent and critical that the city get this new strategy right because we are laying the foundation for the next generation of fashion designers and producers in New York. That means there must be a fair, well-informed process for understanding the industry’s current and future needs and launching services to meet those needs.”
Blair declined comment Wednesday and a GDA spokeswoman noted the process was ongoing.
Yeohlee Teng, a member of the SPC, said in a statement, “We’re working to ensure a fair and equitable process as outlined in the Zoning text amendment and The Manhattan Borough President’s Garment Center Steering Committee Report of 2018, with the goal of invigorating the fashion industry and its historic place in midtown Manhattan.”
Last week, Blair and a few participants declined to identify any of the four strongest proposals. A proposal that is said to be in the running was a $1 million one presented by the GDA to replace the Pentagram-designed sculpture of a giant needle threading a button on the northeast corner of West 39th Street and Seventh Avenue. A more modern stand-alone replacement by UAP New York would take its place to ease pedestrian traffic at a busy corner. Aside from using some of the funding for something that would not strengthen apparel manufacturing, which is meant to be the underlying message of all of the programs that will be funded, the GDA proposal was presented differently than others, according to a source.
While other proponents of different proposals were asked to leave the room while their respective ideas were discussed, that was not the case with the one put forward by the GDA. Representatives were allowed to stay to state their case, the source said.
Friedman said, “I think the EDC agencies that helped to craft the plan and that oversee the BIDs need to be involved to ensure that it reflects the comprehensive plan that grew out of the rezoning to ensure that it is implemented fairly.”
For decades developers, designers, manufacturers, city officials and other stakeholders tangled over how to ease the Garment District’s zoning. Those parameters were put in place in 1987 by Mayor Ed Koch’s administration and have caused all sorts of consternation ever since. In setting up the district, there were mandates that area landlords add a square foot of garment-related space for every square foot that they removed for some other use. The new zoning won support from the New York City EDC and the GDA BID. The area stretches from about West 35th to 41st Streets from Fifth Avenue to Ninth Avenue.
Attracting nonfashion businesses — such as Uber, numerous hotels, restaurants and multiple WeWorks — is meant to modernize what many consider to be an outdated and to some extent dingy area. Beyond the increased tax revenue and commercial advantages, the more consumer-friendly refresh also aims to boost foot traffic, property values and commercial rents.
The 10-year plan for up to $25 million in funding will be awarded to approved proposals based on a rolling admission. Funded twice a year by the city of New York in July and January, the financial allocations are dependent partially on the projects’ objectives in furthering local apparel production.
Despite consumers’ appreciation for reshoring and to a lesser degree manufacturers’ interest in it, some feel rebuilding the Garment District is a daunting prospect. Others point to gains by subscription rental apparel services and vintage or secondhand clothing operations as further reason not to try to rebuild the past. More stalwart Garment Center tenants are undeterred, citing sustainability and American-made as selling points in the gigantic spin cycle of fast fashion. Some Made in America activists point to the Garment District’s legacy as a gateway to self-sufficiency for generations of foreign-born and American workers.
Steven Kolb, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is an integral member of the SPC. “He is happy to be included in the process. He does not think it’s appropriate to discuss the internal conversations but looks forward to sharing the committee’s decision at the end of it. He’s confident that everyone will come to a consensus,” a CFDA spokesman said.