The lure of overseas manufacturing has for years hobbled the fabled center of the American fashion industry, Manhattan’s Garment District.
Yet even as space shrinks and job numbers decline, a devoted and strong segment of the trade remains in the neighborhood, between 35th and 40th streets, and Broadway and Ninth Avenue.
That community says it’s facing a new threat, however, and this one originates much closer to home: a city rezoning proposal that many in the industry fear could obliterate what remains of it in its historic home.
The city unveiled a proposal at a special meeting of Community Board 5 on Wednesday that would eliminate a 1987 zoning protection mandating developers create the equivalent manufacturing and warehouse space for each amount of office space in the neighborhood.
The rezoning would limit new hotels in the neighborhood as well and only allow new residential development west of Eighth Avenue.
“In our conclusion, it hasn’t been effective and is not reflective of our world today,” said Barry Dinerstein, a representative with the Department of City Planning, of the rule.
The city’s Economic Development Corp. said that the proposal is intended to diversify the neighborhood and continue to grow the presence of what it deemed the “creative economy,” such as nonprofits, media and marketing businesses.
About 59% of employees in the area work in that sector, it said.
Manufacturing space within the district declined by 22% between 2009 and 2014 and garment manufacturing jobs declined by 8,484 between 2000 and 2015, according to the EDC. There were just over 5,000 garment manufacturing jobs in the district as of 2015.
In the 1950s, there were close to 350,000 city employees working in those fashion factories.
The proposal promotes two manufacturing facilities in Sunset Park — the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Bush Terminal — as a new center for the fashion industry.
“What we are seeing is that other hubs are forming,” said EDC vice president Julieanne Herskowitz.
The city will invest $236 million over the next decade in the two spaces, which are 500,000 square feet and 200,000 square feet, respectively, and it will help interested companies relocate.
Garment District locals and Manhattan political leaders appear lukewarm at best to the concept.
“If we take away the infrastructure, we will take away the industry not only in New York but the United States,” said Samantha Cortes, of the nonprofit group Save the Garment Center.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer urged the EDC to take the fashion workers’ concerns seriously and invest more in the district.
“The Economic Development Corp. needs to slow down and listen more, so it doesn’t rush into a choice we will all regret,” she said in a statement.
Alex Robins, who has been running the clothing company Blluemade with his wife in the district for less than a year, said he relies on subways and values the premium transit access in Manhattan over the Brooklyn waterfront.
“We’d have to have an entirely different business model. We’d really have to think about having independent transportation,” he said.
Community Board member Eric Stern argued that the zoning rules are too lax and developers and landlords hamper the fashion industry in midtown with enormous rent increases.
Cortes said she used to pay $2,500 a month when she started her clothing company and that increased to $8,000 a decade ago.
“We have not been discussing what the landlords are enforcing,” she said.
EDC officials reiterated that the plans aren’t set in stone and they are taking feedback from the community.
They created an online survey at edc.nyc/gmsurvey and encouraged fashion business owners to share their thoughts.