Manufacturers Make Case for Garment District Staying in Manhattan - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

Manufacturers Make Case for Garment District Staying in Manhattan

BY MARK NIMAR | The future of Manhattan’s Garment District was among the fashionable topics of concern at July 25’s full board meeting of Community Board 4 (CB4), as a costume designer, a glove maker, and an embroidery expert insisted the city’s recently proposed zoning laws for the iconic neighborhood will negatively affect their businesses, and ultimately force them out of the area historically meant for tailoring and manufacturing.

Katie Sue Nicklos and Lacrasia Duchein, of Wing & Weft Gloves. | Photo courtesy of wingweftgloves.com

In a letter to the New York City Planning Commission and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, CB4’s Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee noted how the situation goes back to March of 2017, when “with less than a month’s notice, the City proposed a package of changes” to the zoning of the Garment District, which would lift “preservation requirements to allow for more office space development,” which would, in turn, raise the rents of local tailors, designers, and manufacturers. That added expense would make many designers’ businesses financially unfeasible — and the city’s proposed solution, to move the Garment Center to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, would rob the industry of its close proximity to its Manhattan clients, a key component to the success of many shops in the area.

“Space is one of the main players when we make financial decisions for our business,” said Katie Sue Nicklos, a glove maker and co-owner of Wing & Weft Gloves. Located at 270 W. 38th St., the company has designed handmade gloves for the theater, film, and fashion industries for over 40 years. In a follow-up interview to her appearance at the CB4 meeting, Nicklos told NYC Community Media that “because of Hudson Yards developments, it’s pushed rent up and up. Our last line of defense has been zoning… People are going from 35 dollar per square foot [rent] to 70 dollar per square foot, and it’s not sustainable.”

Despite the rising cost of rent, Nicklos feels strongly that her glove-making shop needs to remain in the Garment District. “I really want to stay here,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful part of the city’s legacy. There’s no other place like it. This is where I have grown up…. [leaving here would be] like being ripped from your home.” Aside from her sentimental attachment to the neighborhood, Nicklos does have more practical concerns about leaving the Garment District. “These buildings that we’re in are factory buildings,” she noted. “They’re made for machines. The [Sunset Park] buildings we’d be moving into aren’t soundproofed, aren’t made for the weight of our machines.”

Nicklos also noted that because of the Garment District’s close proximity to Broadway, TV sets, and wealthy clients, “projects get done fast, because we’re right here.” Moving to another borough, she asserted, would result in a loss of time and money crucial to the ongoing success of her glove-making business.

Samanta Cortes, executive director of Save The Garment Center and one of the world’s leading experts in embroidery machinery, shares many of Nicklos’ concerns. Because of the zoning laws, Cortes’ rent has spiked by 35 percent. Her landlord also only offered her a month-to-month lease — and because of this instability, potential investors walked away from the business. “I had two big partners who wanted to invest,” she told this publication in a follow-up interview to her testimony before the full board of CB4. “They were willing to partner up, but they pulled out, because [my rent was on] a month-to-month basis.”

Samanta Cortes, executive director of Save The Garment Center. | Photo by Charles Beckwith

Cortes is also against the proposed move to Sunset Park. She says that in Sunset Park, the workers there are more skilled in making T-shirts, and do not have the knowledge and craftsmanship to construct a $5,000 gown. She is also worried that highly-skilled designers in their 70s will not be able to commute to Sunset Park. Cortes further noted that if more senior designers cannot interact with younger ones, “knowledge of [skills like] pleating will be lost,” and the next generation will not be able to mentor future designers.

The ability of artisans to thrive is not just in the interest of the fashion industry: New York’s economy also depends on it. Charles Beckwith, the director of communications for Save The Garment Center, noted that the Garment District is “where 90 percent of clothing is designed for the world,” and that “New York is the fashion capital of the world” for that reason. “In China,” he noted, “it takes an entire day to go around and find material for a garment. In Paris, it takes half a day. In New York, it takes half an hour.” The Garment District’s current configuration allows this ease with which designers can build their garments — and if a change undermines the current system, New York’s economy will be hurt, Beckwith argued.

The community is taking these concerns seriously. Following its July 25th meeting, CB4 included in its letter to the New York City Planning Commission and the NYC Economic Development Corporation a recommendation that “proposed IDA real estate tax incentives should preserve between 500,000 and 750,000 square feet of manufacturing space,” and 180,366 square feet of currently protected space should be preserved “in perpetuity.” The board also recommended the city acquire a new building of 150,000 square feet to provide affordable workspace for Garment District workers.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has also pledged her support. The Manhattan Borough Board recently voted in favor of a plan, which would preserve “at least 300,000 square feet of fashion manufacturing space” for Garment District workers, according to patch.com’s July 26 article on the vote. “As a whole, this plan will preserve a core of manufacturing in the area for years to come,” Brewer tweeted on July 26, after the vote took place. “[Thank you] to the Garment Center Steering Committee for your work!”

In an Aug. 6 email, CB4 Chair Burt Lazarin told this publication that CB4 “supports the progress the elected officials and the administration have made on the proposal,” but noted, “more needs to be done to retain the garment industry in Manhattan.” CB4, he said, believes that the rezoning “should include solutions to the outstanding zoning issues… such as oversaturation of hotels, the underdevelopment of affordable housing, and the illegal demolition of multiple dwellings between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.”

CB4 and Brewer’s support are victories for the garment industry, in a battle against the powerful financial forces that are vying for control of the city. With the price of real estate in Midtown and the massive earning potential for investors, “there’s a lot of money at play here,” Beckwith noted. “At this point, nothing has been formalized. Nothing has been protected yet, which is not something we’re comfortable with. We want to see a minimum of 750,000 square feet [protected], and probably more like a million… There are 900 manufacturers that are in danger if the city goes ahead and moves the protections. The current zoning law is not perfect, but it’s all we got. And if it’s removed, it will be a massive problem overnight.” Beckwith is not afraid to push back. “You don’t want to start a fight with a business with access to every celebrity on the planet… Our resources are large,” he said, “and if we need to wake them up, we will.”

Despite the challenges facing the industry, Nicklos remains optimistic about the future. “I am naive with hope,” she said, “but I want to hang onto that as long as I can, because I believe it is worth it to make something that stays. There have been people… saying that this [industry] has been dying, and nothing can change. I am hoping I am not one of those voices years and years from now. If I don’t do something now, no one [in the future] will have a chance… Tradition is important and the arts are important, and communities are important. They all deserve a place in the city. On the island of Manhattan.”

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