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Garment District Zoning Changes Would 'Devastate' Industry, Critics Say

By Maya Rajamani | March 24, 2017 12:08pm | Updated on March 26, 2017 2:56pm
 Inside H.M. Fabrics at 257 W. 39th St.
Inside H.M. Fabrics at 257 W. 39th St.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

GARMENT DISTRICT — A proposal to eliminate preservation rules for manufacturing space in the Garment District while enticing workers to relocate to Brooklyn would “devastate” an industry that’s already “on the brink of collapse,” critics of the plan said. 

Representatives from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and Department of City Planning on Wednesday presented plans to introduce zoning changes to the Special Garment Center District, including the lifting of a rule that requires building owners to preserve space for manufacturing.

The city also plans to provide space for garment designers and manufacturers in Sunset Park.

Nearly 20 attendees, however, spoke out against the proposal — some of whom claimed the city’s failure to enforce the current zoning rules has contributed to the garment industry’s decline.

When the city created the district in 1987, the area was home to around 30,000 garment manufacturing jobs. That number has since dwindled to around 5,000, EDC vice president Julieanne Herskowitz told a packed crowd at Wednesday's public forum.

Currently, buildings in the district with more than 70,000 square feet to the west of Eighth Avenue are not allowed to convert space to office or residential use unless they preserve an equal amount of space for manufacturing, or show that the space has been vacant for three years, DCP planner Barry Dinerstein explained.

The current zoning “has not been particularly effective,” Dinerstein said.

“In 1987, it made a lot of sense,” he said. “Today, we think it’s… a different world.”

The proposed zoning change would allow tenants to convert space to offices without preserving manufacturing space, while removing the ability to convert to residential space, he said.

Garment manufacturing would “still be permitted” in the district, but non-garment companies would be able to move into spaces that were previously off limits to them, Dinerstein said. The change would also introduce a special permit that aims to curb hotel development in the district.

In conjunction with the zoning changes, the city is planning to focus its energies on Sunset Park, which is currently home to the “second largest cluster of garment manufacturing in the city,” with more than 100 firms and 1,700 employees, Herskowitz noted. 

Between city-owned properties including the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Bush Terminal — where the city plans to open a “Made in New York Campus” for manufacturing — more than 700,000 square feet of soon-to-be-renovated space will be available for those interested in signing “long-term,” five- to 10-year leases, which are hard to secure in the Garment District, she explained.

More than 2.4 million square feet of industrial space, meanwhile, is available in the Brooklyn neighborhood’s private market, she noted.

Sunset Park could provide relief for manufacturers and designers dealing with rising rents and aging Midtown buildings, Herskowitz added. Businesses that move to Sunset Park would also have access to grants that would allow them to modernize and invest in new technology.

“Certainly the Garment Center still is the fashion hub, and we want it to be the fashion hub, but what we’re also seeing is that other hubs are forming,” she said.

“We want to assist companies who are relocating and expanding, but to be very clear, we are not asking anyone to move; we are not pushing anyone out,” she added.

Critics of the city’s proposal, however, said they felt otherwise.

Had the city enforced the existing zoning requirements, many manufacturing jobs could have been saved, several meeting attendees argued.

“[The existing requirements] haven’t worked because they never included adequate enforcement, and they never included any oversight of rising costs,” an attendee named Allison said.

“And it was always easier for landlords to warehouse a space for a couple years and say, ‘I just can’t rent it,’ than to actually work with a producer… to make it possible for that person to take the space," she added.

A number of attendees said that the trek to Sunset Park — and the isolation from existing businesses in the Garment District — wouldn’t work for their businesses.

Lacrasia Duchein and her husband, who have manufactured gloves in the district for nearly 50 years, said they wouldn’t survive in the outer boroughs.

“We sell… to the Broadway shows, to Hollywood, to rock stars — they don’t want to go out to Queens, they don’t want to go out to Brooklyn,” she said. “We have to be in the Garment District.”

Additionally, traveling to Brooklyn would significantly increase commute times for workers who live in Queens and New Jersey, Garment Center Supplier Association president Joseph Ferrara said.

Garment manufacturers rely on the proximity of fabric stores and other Midtown businesses involved the industry, production manager Chloe Guss added.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think the city understands how complex it is,” she said. “When you say, ‘You don’t all have to move at once' — you do have to move all at once.” 

Barbara Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance, was one of the few to speak in support of the proposed change.

The district has evolved in recent years as “creative and professional” businesses like architectural firms and graphic designers have moved in, she said.

“Zoning is not an effective mechanism for the sustainability of [the garment] industry,” she maintained, while praising the city’s “comprehensive” plan to address the industry’s challenges.

The city plans to collect feedback from the district’s “stakeholders” before moving forward with the lengthy zoning-change process, Lydia Downing, EDC’s deputy director of government community relations, said after the forum’s public session.

Sunset Park would simply be an alternative for designers and manufacturers whose companies are in danger of closing, she added.

The city’s presentation was still not enough to assuage the concerns of many longtime Garment District employees.

During the public session, an attendee named Karen — who said her family has been in the business for seven decades — claimed the city’s proposal would “devastate” the industry.

“It’s on the brink of collapse, and you’re going to put a nail and a bullet into it completely,” she said. “You’re killing us — you’re killing everybody in this room.”