A Debate Over the Home of New York’s Fashion Industry

The crux of the argument is whether the zoning changes will force out industrial tenants, who already feel squeezed by rents. The debate is a continuation of one from 2009, when the Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration considered removing the regulations, an effort that was eventually thwarted by a grass-roots movement.

On one hand, the government argues that the zoning regulations have had no effect on talent retainment in the garment district. That side points to data provided by the Census Bureau, which says the number of jobs in the district has been on slow decline for decades. Most recent data show a drop from 13,607 in 2000 to 5,123 in 2015.

“From the 1950s, we have had a steady decrease in apparel jobs in New York,” said Barbara A. Blair, the president of the Garment District Alliance. “When the special overlay was put into place in 1987, it did not even put a blip into job retention.”


A part of the 18-building Bush Terminal complex in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

But union leaders, designers, manufacturers and business owners say the drop has partly been caused by a lack of government oversight, which has led to more than five million square feet of noncompliant office uses in the district.

“One of the reasons the job decline is continuing its slide is that the zoning is not properly enforced,” said Samanta Cortes, the founder of Save the Garment Center, a grass-roots organization that published a public letter last weekend proposing a plan to develop the garment center with the addition of a commercial arcade, a designer co-working space, a center for skills development and more.

Also contributing to the migration of business out of the garment center and to the other boroughs, and to New Jersey, have been rising rents and short leases.

“My landlord will not give me a lease, so I’m basically month to month,” said George Kalajian, the president of Tom’s Sons International Pleating, which has worked with designers like Dennis Basso, Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad. “My future is dwindling in another man’s hands.”


Garment workers in Sunset Park during a tour of manufacturing factories organized by the Economic Development Corporation.

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Since 2010, office space in the area that includes the garment district has gone from an average of $36.10 a square foot to $57.34, according to Colliers International, a real estate company in New York. Within Midtown South, which Colliers considers to cover everything between Canal and 40th Streets, the area has the lowest average asking rates. There is still plenty of room for prices to rise.

The proposal from the…

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