NEW YORK — The city of New York should be investing in the existing Garment District rather than pushing to “deport” it to Brooklyn.
That was the key takeaway at an urban manufacturing symposium spearheaded by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at the High School of Fashion Industries on Monday afternoon.
During a panel discussion about the garment industry “ecosystem,” conversation became heated as proponents of different plans presented their views.
Designer Yeohlee Teng said she is asking for “equal investment” in the “remains” of the current Garment District neighborhood in Manhattan rather than focusing only on relocating firms to Sunset Park in Brooklyn.
The city is proposing moving some apparel industry firms to a new manufacturing hub in Sunset Park where 265,000 square feet of dedicated space is available with an additional 500,000 square feet of industrial space coming on board this summer at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. An additional 200,000 square feet is expected to be available by spring 2020 at the Bush Terminal and there is also 2.4 million square feet available in the private market, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
Teng said the convenience of having a cluster of support firms — pattern paper providers, sewers, notions companies — is essential to the success of any apparel brand. “We look at the district as an incubator,” she said, one that benefits existing and new manufacturers. And moving any of those pieces out of the fashion district, will lead to the demise of all. “We are here to find a win-win solution for all,” she said.
Joe Ferrara, president of the New York Garment Suppliers Association, agreed. He said when the NYCEDC developed its plan to relocate fashion industry firms to Brooklyn, the manufacturers were not consulted. “The plan was developed by the landlords,” he said.
To rousing applause from the audience, Ferrera said his group is proposing acquiring 500,000 square feet of space within the existing fashion district to house manufacturers who choose to remain in the neighborhood.
Teng and Ferrera were quick to take on Barbara Blair of the Garment District Alliance, who is in favor of lifting the zoning regulations that protect fashion manufacturing in Manhattan and believes Sunset Park is a viable alternative.
“Nobody argues the benefits of a cluster,” Blair said, “but we’re offering a secondary cluster with some assurance of a long-term protected place.”
An audience member then shouted that Blair tell the truth and acknowledge that her group represents the landlords — which she did.
Even so, Blair stressed that since the zoning regulations were enacted in 1987 — rules that require landlords to preserve space used for manufacturing rather than converting it to commercial or residential use — apparel manufacturing in the Garment District has declined precipitously. So eliminating the zoning restrictions will have no impact on the firms currently operating in the area.
Others on the panel disagreed, including George Kalajian, president of Tom’s Sons International Pleating, who said his landlord won’t give him any more than a month-to-month lease. He suspects the building owner is holding out until the regulations are lifted and he can convert the space to a higher and better use such as a hotel.
“My future is in another man’s hands,” he said, “but I know that if I leave the Garment Center, I would be out of business.”
Edgar Romney, who represents Workers United, the union for the garment workers, also pointed out that moving to Sunset Park, with its limited public transportation, would create a hardship for the employees, many of whom are skilled artisans. “If we move en masse, we may lose those workers,” he said.
Although there was no decision reached during the symposium, Brewer urged the attendees to continue to voice their opinions and discuss options since it’s becoming clear that relocation can lead to the disruption of the Garment Center.
The symposium ended with a series of breakout sessions intended to continue the discussion. “Bring an open mind, your own ideas, and help us come up with some actionable ideas for helping manufacturing thrive again,” Brewer said in her promotion of the event.
Overall, the fashion industry represents more than 5 percent of the city’s workforce, or 182,000 people, and its 13,300-plus businesses generate more than $11 billion in wages and $2 billion in annual taxes, according to the NYCEDC.
Even so, there’s no question that New York apparel manufacturing has seen a steep decline over the past 70 years. Cecilia Kushner, senior vice president of development at NYCEDC, told WWD at an earlier discussion that day. She said that in the Fifties, 90 percent of all clothing was manufactured in the city; today, it’s less than 1 percent. “We’ve lost about 95 percent of all the garment manufacturing,” she said. In 1987, the garment center had 30,000 jobs and today there are 5,000 jobs in the garment center.
James Patchett, president and chief executive officer of the NYCEDC, explained that Sunset Park is a “natural fit” for the industry. It has the single largest concentration of city-owned industrial assets anywhere in the city. Some 1,700 garment workers live in Sunset Park and work in Brooklyn and the hub is accessible via the D and N trains and is a 25-minute subway ride to Midtown.
“What we believe the industry needs most is stability and certainty in the long-term. They know they won’t be subject to month-to-month leases and uncertain real estate pressures, which frankly the special district in the garment center has utterly failed to solve,” Patchett said. “Where we can solve it is in assets that the city owns, where we control the leases. We’re the landlord,” he said. “There is no incentive for a landlord in the garment center to invest in their buildings.”
Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, said, “We really believe that having a healthy local manufacturing center is critical” to keeping businesses in New York. By moving some businesses from the Garment Center to Sunset Park, “a lot of people think we’re destroying the garment center,” she said. But the current zoning regulations only cover manufacturing. “It has no impact on anything else.”
Glen continued, “Our job is we’re pro-New York. We don’t want to see people leave New York. The idea is it’s a citywide effort, not just to stem the tide but to grow….It’s our mission to keep jobs here. My mission is to do everything we can do keep these business stable and grow and look out of the horizon and see positive growth. “