City Embraces Public Say on Garment District Future |

City Embraces Public Say on Garment District Future

Garment industry representatives talk with members of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office during a breakout session during an April 24 forum on the future of Midtown’s traditional Garment District. Photo by Jackson Chen.

BY JACKSON CHEN | To weave more public input into the proposed Garment District zoning change, the city on Wed., May 10 announced the creation of a steering committee that would review the controversial proposal and offer its recommendations.

The Garment District rezoning plan was first presented during a Community Board 5 (CB5) meeting in March. Initiated by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the proposal would remove a zoning mechanism that for decades sought to preserve manufacturing space while taking steps to stem the encroachment of hotels and foster the incoming wave of smaller technology, media, advertising, and non-profit enterprises.

But these proposals — affecting the area from W. 35th to 40th Sts., between Broadway and Ninth Ave. — drew immediate criticism from many garmentos who made clear the city was moving too fast and with little consideration for their business needs.

The raucous opposition attracted the attention of elected officials and others, and on Wed., April 12, CB5 penned a letter asking for the creation of a steering committee before the city proceeded any further. Backed by both Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams — whose borough stands to gain from further migration of the industry out of its traditional home in Midtown — as well as affected community boards, the city recently agreed to create the Garment Industry Steering Committee.

“I want to see the Garment Center not just survive, but thrive as a critical hub, even as we grow the industry in other parts of the city,” Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen said in a written statement. “There is more and more consensus that the outdated preservation requirement has not proven effective at securing this industry the affordable, quality manufacturing space it needs. Thirty years of continuous job losses prove it. It’s time for a new approach to get this industry thriving again.”

According to the announcement, the steering committee would meet for three months before issuing recommendations in advance of the Department of City Planning’s expected start of the public review process on Mon., Aug. 21. 

CB5 was recently involved with the Midtown East rezoning plan — jump-started early in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, after the collapse of efforts late in Michael Bloomberg’s final term. CB5 was part of the steering committee formed to shepherd that effort through, and the community board is expected to have a seat at the table on the garment industry planning, as well.

“We believe that a solution that will allow the garment industry ecosystem to remain alive and healthy in our district is within our grasp,” CB5 Chair Vikki Barbero said in a statement that thanked the city, Brewer, and City Councilmember Corey Johnson. “We look forward to working with all the stakeholders in the next three months and reaching an agreement about which we can all be proud.” 

In the announcement of the steering committee, Johnson, whose district includes the Garment District, said, “Community involvement is an indispensible part of creating good public policy. With this steering committee, the city is committing to engage with those most affected by the changes that the Garment District has undergone so far and the challenges it will face in the future.”

Given that the rezoning effort for the Garment District involves a considerably smaller area than that affected by the Midtown East rezoning, Brewer — who will chair the steering committee — said three months should be sufficient time provided members begin soon and meet regularly. The borough president acknowledged she would have preferred more time, but said the timeframe is a reasonable compromise among everybody involved.

The city’s willingness to open the process up signals a shift in tone from recent statements from the EDC. The Garment Center Supplier Association submitted its proposal for a rezoning to the EDC, under which 500,000 square feet of space in the district would be set aside for manufacturing use under a scheme managed by the city or a non-profit. The association’s plan was discussed as part of public forum convened by Brewer on Tues., April 25.

In reaction to the forum, the EDC, even while agreeing to review the association’s proposal, stated, “The sponsors of the forum offer no realistic path to preserving and strengthening one of New York City’s iconic industries. This is about safeguarding a job-intensive sector for future generations by taking action today.”

The new steering committee is still working to confirm its membership, but Brewer said she expects the city agencies, Community Boards 4 and 5, local businesses, unions, manufacturers, and other industry experts to be represented. When asked about the newly formed steering committee, EDC confirmed that it would have a seat at the table. A first meeting date has yet to be determined, but Brewer predicts it will be soon.

“I really appreciate the fact that we can have this steering committee,” Brewer told our sister publication, Manhattan Express. “We’ll find a way to make it flexible and make Brooklyn work for some while making sure that manufacturers are able to stay in Manhattan. That ecosystem is incredibly important in Manhattan.”