New York’s fashion industry grapples with Mayor’s plan to tear Garment District away from Midtown
(New York Daily News) The fate of the city’s Garment District is hanging by a thread — while the city and industry insiders debate whether to rip it out of Manhattan entirely or find new ways to permanently stitch it into Midtown.
Once a massive part of the cityscape — stretching from lower Manhattan into the 30s — the Garment District is now little more than a square mile between 34th and 42nd Sts. and Fifth and Ninth Aves.
In its heyday, American apparel manufacturing employed some 550,000 people, said Richard Guido, business manager of UNITE HERE! Local 10, the union that represents city garment workers.
Guido, 73, got his start out of high school as a fabric cutter and a marker.
“We have small factories all around this district, they’re sewing things like gloves, making pleats, doing all kinds of work,” he said.
There are now fewer than than 800 Local 10 workers in the Garment District, mostly Latinas and Asian women — although there are still a few older Russian and Jewish women, too.
Many of the manufacturing spots that remain are protected by a zoning law passed in 1987. The law says landlords on some side streets had to hold a certain amount of square footage for garment manufacturing — even if floors were remade to rent to other types of businesses. Despite the protections, the industry continued to shrink — thanks to overseas imports and rising rents.
Now many landlords and nonindustry businesses in the area argue it’s time to drop the antiquated protection. That will open underutilized commercial spaces to other types of creative businesses, they claim.
Mayor de Blasio is keen to move the Garment District to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where a $135 million investment would mean 200,000 feet of manufacturing space by 2020. There will also be 500,000 feet available at the Brooklyn Army Terminal this fall.
With its affordable and long-term leases, the de Blasio administration says, moving to Sunset Park is the best way for the district to survive.
“Garment manufacturing has been on a continuous decline for the last 30 years in New York City and we want to get this industry growing again because it’s a vital link in the fashion sector and in our overall economy,” said a spokeswoman for the city Economic Development Corp.
It’s a hard sell to Garment District loyalists — the multigenerational business owners, the mom-and-shop suppliers, the Broadway designers and costumemakers who rely on the district’s proximity and the fashionistas who rush in and out on endless errands.
For this web of buyers and sellers, the idea of moving is unthinkable — and if it were to happen, some said they’d exit the city altogether.
“Listen, the point of doing business in this city and paying 13.5% in taxes is to be here — in this district,” said Bud Konheim, co-founder of Nicole Miller. “Our workforce can get here, our buyers can get here, we can run out and grab what we need from the streets. It doesn’t make any business sense to uproot from this — and if we do, we can go someplace like Florida, where the weather’s better, we don’t have the traffic and we’re not paying a 13.5% tax.”
A few blocks away at Steinlauf & Stoller, owner Dan Stoller, 29, has inherited the sewing shop started by his grandfather in 1947.
“We are pretty much a foot traffic business. So if the foot traffic moves, we would feel it,” said Stoller, as he fixed a zipper for a customer. “We deal with Broadway a lot and also the fashion world, but other people, too. I’m not behind this idea of moving — I think it’s a bad plan.”
His concerns are echoed by James Yoo, who took over New York Elegant Fabrics from his parents, South Korean immigrants who came to work in the Garment District.
“Theater and Broadway in general is a huge part of our business — one of the biggest clients we have. TV is here a lot, too; we get a lot of designers from shows like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘Gotham,’ ” said Yoo.
His business has no plans to move to Brooklyn, he said, because it would inevitably mean a falloff for in-store shopping.
While industry players and de Blasio — along with the Economic Development Corp., which is involved in the push — debate the future of the Garment District, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is calling for more clarity from both sides.
“We’re calling for a six- to nine-month planning discussion as opposed to the approach of, ‘This is the plan and we’re all going to follow it,’ ” said Brewer, who is hosting a talk about the Garment District on Monday night at the High School of Fashion Industries on W. 24th St.
“The Manhattan Garment District is its own ecosystem, and we don’t want to lose it,” Brewer said. “It doesn’t mean something can’t happen in Brooklyn, but we need a longer discussion.”
The industry players aren’t the only group pushing back against the mayor, however. Several high-powered city unions — traditionally part of de Blasio’s base — are vocally against it.
“Organized labor .. . is continuing to make sure we preserve the history and legacy of this iconic industry here in Manhattan,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the Central Labor Council. “The Garment District’s proximity to transportation hubs, the theatrical industry, and the heart of tourism makes it an ideal location. (We) will continue to work with our affiliates to protect this quintessential piece of New York City culture.”