Garment District struggles to find a way forward

Posted on August 20th, 2011 by Brett Essler in Arts, Business, Featured

The statue of a Jewish garment worker hunched over a sewing machine greets visitors at the entrance to Manhattan’s Garment Center at 39th Street and 7th Avenue. Photo: Brett Essler

Reported on Aug. 12, 2011

At the entrance to Manhattan’s Garment Center District at Seventh Avenue and 39th Street, a statue of a Jewish garment worker hunched over a sewing machine greets visitors. It’s a monument to the city’s rich history of garment manufacturing and the immigrant labor force that helped cement New York’s status as the center of the fashion world. But it also portends a more uncertain future.

The skilled labor force that once filled the garment factories of this Midtown district have been declining in numbers for decades through attrition and overseas outsourcing. Champions of the industry fear that the knowledge and specialized skills handed down through generations will be lost, and with it, New York City’s future as the top destination for young designers, fashion start-ups, and industry events. Neighborhood property and business owners acknowledge the district’s rich history, but say that arcane zoning that preserves manufacturing space is a hindrance to economic development.

Some see it differently.

“It really is the root of fashion,” says Erica Wolf who works for designer Nanette Lepore and serves as executive director of Save the Garment Center, a group of fashion industry representatives dedicated to preserving manufacturing space in the district. “The energy of the Garment Center brought what became Fashion Week and really put New York on the map as the fashion capital of the world.”

In 1987, the city recognized the decline in fashion manufacturing and sought to protect the industry with the Special Garment Center District zoning, which would have preserved some midblock properties from 35th to 40th streets between Seventh and Ninth avenues for garment production and factory use. Nearly 25 years later, manufacturing has even less of a presence in Midtown (fashion manufacturing employment is down 61 percent since 2001, according to data from a New York City Economic Development Corporation report), but the zoning remains unchanged, leaving property owners unable to convert former factory space to other commercial uses that would yield a higher per-square-foot rent.

Since 2005, a number of stakeholders with economic or political interests in the neighborhood have been locked in a debate about the future of the Garment Center District: to continue dedicating blocks of prime real estate to a shrinking industry or to forever alter the character of a neighborhood, potentially killing a trade that is interwoven into the history of New York City. After several failed proposals, the plans for the future of the district remain at an impasse, with a hope that a solution amenable to all parties can be reached before the Bloomberg administration ends in 2013.

“There are millions of square feet that are not being utilized by the fashion industry,” says Jerry Scupp, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, a non-profit organization funded by district property owners and businesses. “If a property owner is trying to earn money and there’s no one interested in renting those spaces, then what are you going to do? Keep your building vacant?”

That fashion manufacturing is a shrinking industry is not disputed by those who have participated in past negotiations to arrive at revised land-use solutions for the district. The greater question is: how much territory will be ceded to real estate interests, and how much will remain preserved for use by the fashion industry.

“I think it’s about finding that balance,” says Wolf, “We’re trying to maintain that quality of the Garment Center, which is fashion. If you let go of the base, which is made up of factories and suppliers you will ultimately lose the status that we’ve gained.”

Critics of the fashion industry’s advocacy for preserving the district as a garment manufacturing hub point to the fact many of the city’s top designers are no longer headquartered in the district and outsource production to cheaper, overseas vendors.

Wolf concedes that some major fashion designers no longer call the district home, but notes that maintaining the neighborhood’s production base is essential to nurturing fashion’s future talent.

“You find a lot of young designers moving into the neighborhood,” she says. “The older designers can afford to move to those nicer, gentrified neighborhoods, but a young designer never could.”

Samantha Cortes is a 20-year veteran of the fashion manufacturing industry and has owned Fashion Design Concepts, which specializes in embroidery, on West 38th Street for 10 years. She says that today’s fashion design programs turn out “pencil-pushers” without the technical skills the Garment Center industry once thrived on. As those jobs leave the neighborhood, or the country, so do the skills that were once passed down.

For Cortes, proximity to the nexus of the fashion world is also an imperative. The designers and production managers “just won’t go to other areas, a couple of blocks makes a huge difference,” she says.

Wolf says that the industry, while smaller, still provides a sizable economic impact, pointing to Lepore, a well-known designer who has made a decision not to offshore her production.

“She employees 130 internally, and by extension, if you include the factories it’s 300 to 500 people in any given month, depending on how many garments she’s producing,” Wolf says. According to 2009 New York State Department of Labor statistics, 50 percent of all city fashion jobs are centered in the Garment Center and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Scupp, while sympathetic with the fashion industry, is dubious about the importance of clustering manufacturers and designers.

“Nobody has ever established that the proximity argument makes sense, like, they would all go out of business if the button shop was in Long Island City?” Scupp asks. “I don’t know, maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t, but it’s hard to guess.”

For all of those with an interest in the Garment Center, the proximity issue is just one of many unknowns, which has made negotiations tricky. The New York City Economic Development Corporation has been a tireless promoter of the fashion industry while also trying to help move the Garment Center into a new phase, and many of the stakeholders have indicated they are in regular communication with development corporation officials.

According to spokesman Kyle Sklerov, the corporation “is continuing to evaluate alternatives for preserving production space in the Garment Center and supporting the area’s revitalization.”

The most recent proposal presented, and ultimately rejected in 2010, called for a designated building for production and would have eased the midblock preservation zoning. The amount of space allotted – about 300,000 square feet, according to Wolf – was not enough to meet the needs of the industry based on current manufacturing operations and hopeful projections for growth. Currently, of the of approximately 9 million square feet zoned for manufacturing and production in the district, about 1.6 million is being used.

Andrew Dolkart, a Columbia University historic preservation professor who has championed saving the Garment Center also finds the single-building idea untenable.  Dolkart says the idea to move the entire garment manufacturing sector into a single building was “weighted entirely to the real estate industry.”

“Clearly, there is more space in the district than could ever be used by fashion business,” he says. “But the area is zoned for industry now so those who claim a hardship because they paid too much for their buildings under the assumption they could convert get no sympathy from me.”

Wolf says the industry has stood firm that 2 million square feet of manufacturing space be preserved. Edgar Romney, who represents roughly 3,000 Midtown garment workers as secretary-treasurer of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, says, “1 million square feet would be a fair and equitable number.”

Wolf concedes  the glory days of fashion manufacturing in the city are behind us, but hints at promising trends. “No one is delusional enough to think it will be the way it was in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, but maybe there is some room for growth,” she says. “For the costing of certain garments we’re becoming more price competitive and certain people are actually starting to bring production back.”

Scupp understands why people who support fashion manufacturing or historic preservation are tentative, but the Business Improvement District’s position, as a representative of some property owners in the Special Garment Center District, is to find a way to support an industry sector that is struggling, while also making the best use of real estate assets.

“It’s a question of finding the right formula that provides some measure of protection for the industry, but doesn’t handcuff somebody else,” he says. “I think that at some point there has to be some political reckoning in terms of who gets the final say.

Romney and Wolf both pointed to the Design Trust for Public Space’s “Made in Midtown” study, which was commissioned by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and stressed the district’s importance as a start-up incubator, as a possible stepping stone to a compromise. A second phase of the study with recommendations is expected later this year. The council also partnered last year with the New York City Economic Development Corporation to sponsor a fashion incubator, which is helping to mentor 12 up-and-coming fashion brands in a Garment Center building.

Who will have the final say, or the loudest voice – the industry, property owners, and the garment workers union have all participated in past negotiations – is yet to be determined. But as all of the stakeholders wait for the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the city to re-circle the wagons, the economic climate for fashion manufacturers is not improving.

After the economic downturn began in 2008, Fashion Design Concepts’ Cortes found she “had to make choices,” including laying off employees with specialized skills in sewing and computer design. “I have a lot of demand, but because I’ve cut so much, the staff is not there anymore. They find other jobs. It’s been a struggle.”

For Scupp, the change can also not come soon enough. “I remain optimistic because until it’s done, it’s always going to be a problem here,” he says.

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