Protecting Manhattan's Garment Center and a Thriving Fashion Industry in NYC
In early 2017, the City announced its intent to lift the zoning protections in Manhattan's Special Garment Center District between West 35th and West 40th Streets in Manhattan, and provide incentives for apparel companies to move to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For decades, the Garment Center’s unique combination of designers, manufacturers, suppliers, design schools, theatre costume companies and other highly specialized functions has created an extraordinarily vibrant eco-system that both inspires and produces fashion. New York’s fashion industry, which employs almost 180,000 people, is big enough to sustain a Manhattan and a Brooklyn hub, but it requires engaging all the industry’s stakeholders to develop a comprehensive set of plans to both strengthen Manhattan as the anchor and nurture a new Brooklyn cluster. Feeling that adequate planning and consideration had not taken place, during the spring of 2017 Pratt Center participated in a Garment Center Steering Committee convened by Borough President Gale Brewer, Council Member Corey Johnson and NYC’s Economic Development Corporation. The goal of the Committee was to identify strategies to strengthen the Garment Center and develop an alternative planning framework for nurturing the sector’s future in light of the real estate pressures of its historic Manhattan location.
The research and advocacy of Pratt Center and key stakeholder partners delayed City action that would have placed thousands of jobs at risk. While the delay is still ongoing, we expect the City is likely to return to this issue in 2018, and our research better equips garment manufacturing advocates to further a plan for the Garment Center that supports rather than undermines the city’s fashion industry.
The Special Garment Center District was created in 1987 to protect the dense, organic cluster of apparel jobs and businesses in the wake of redevelopment in nearby Times Square. The zoning put into place at that time requires that a building owner preserve space for fashion equal in size to any space converted for office uses. Despite lax enforcement by the City, the Garment Center remains a critical hub for fashion design and protection—including over 900 factories and suppliers providing between 5,000 and 7,000 production jobs today.
The density of apparel firms creates a natural incubator where designer-entrepreneurs can bring their ideas, select fabrics, have patterns marked and graded, and get their fabrics cut and sewn. Apparel companies across the city rely on the Garment Center as a central location for quality services and materials. Pratt Center's 2012 Future of Fashion study estimated that one third of the fashion design graduates of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons School of Design at the New School, and Pratt Institute intend to launch their own labels and use the Garment Center to learn their craft and to go into commercial production.
The City’s latest plan calls for removal of the protections for apparel production space in order to encourage development of office space for other design-oriented businesses in the Garment Center, and it encourages fashion production to move to Sunset Park, where the City is investing $136 million to renovate a building for apparel. However, as it is currently contemplated, the zoning change in the Garment Center will happen several years before this new space will be available, meaning that if apparel production companies lose their current Manhattan leases they may have nowhere to go. In addition, the plan essentially spreads out the industry, now concentrated in a 5-block corridor in Manhattan, to stretch over more than 27 blocks in Sunset Park. Industry leaders and elected officials have expressed serious concerns about the timing, process and feasibility of the City's plan and the damage the loss of the Garment Center hub would cause to the apparel industry citywide. [See coverage: NY Daily News, NY Times, City Limits, dnainfo]
Prior to joining the Garment Center Steering Committee convened by elected officials and NYCEDC, Pratt Center worked closely with a growing coalition that includes Workers United, the Garment Center Supplier Association (GCSA), Save the Garment Center, the Design Trust for Public Space, the Municipal Art Society, and elected officials from both Manhattan and Brooklyn to push the City to delay the rezoning and to develop a comprehensive plan to strengthen the industry, including helping companies to buy their space. In the spring of 2017, Borough President Gale Brewer, Council Member Corey Johnson and NYCEDC convened the Garment Center Steering Committee to determine an alternate approach for the Garment Center. Adam Friedman, Director of the Pratt Center, was an active Committee Member and developed a number of the strategies, particularly related to non-profit management of production space, that were included in the Committee’s final report.
The advocacy of Pratt Center and our Coalition partners delayed the City’s action that would have placed the City’s fashion industry and its thousands of production jobs at risk. While this delay is still ongoing, we expect the City to return to this issue in 2018. Our research on the best strategies to support the Garment Center and the needs of workers and companies to compete in a technologically changing industry, generously funded by the Workforce Development Institute (WDI) and the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE), positions us to more effectively work with the City if and when they revisit the plan to lift the Garment Center Special District provisions without adequately ensuring long-term, affordable production space in Midtown.
Our efforts also allowed us to facilitate introductions between stakeholders and potential allies in NYC as well as other parts of the country (e.g. Detroit) to strategize on ways to strengthen the industry, with particular relevance to technology changes and associated training needs. Specifically, we were able to create a networking opportunity for WDI, CWE, The Garment Center Suppliers Association and Shinola (a luxury apparel goods frim in Detroit that is launching a relevant and replicable apprenticeship curriculum).
To see a summary of Pratt Center’s Garment Center research and advocacy efforts, click here.