The Garment District Alliance has released an ambitious new residential and rezoning study for the historic area — which, if enacted, could add as many as 3,225 new housing units to the neighborhood over the next decade.
The plan, detailed in a research report by the alliance, says that the Midtown sub-neighborhood, which runs from approximately W35th Street to W41st Street between 5th and 9th Avenues, has little housing but lots of underused space. Almost all of it is now zoned as offices, with the number of people employed in clothing manufacturing collapsing since the 1950s and halved between 2016 and 2020.
The plan preceded Mayor Eric Adams’ “New” New York Plan, in which officials propose converting commercial space in Midtown and Lower Manhattan to “Live-Work-Play” mixed-use areas and buildings. Adams used his State of the City address last week to promise a move to rezone large parts of the city to allow housing. Governor Kathy Hochul has also signed up to the plan, which will need both city and state laws changed.
Barbara Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance told W42ST: “The Garment District Alliance applauds Mayor Eric Adams for recognizing that this district is a premier location for residential development in New York City. The Garment District’s close proximity to major transportation hubs, offices and top-notch restaurants makes it a central, accessible area that is ideal for residential conversions. Allowing for residential in this district would significantly expand the city’s housing supply, fill inevitable vacancies within office buildings and transform the Garment District into a truly mixed-use, 24/7 neighborhood, with a full-time population filling the streets and supporting small businesses.”
As of 2022, office buildings make up approximately 65.1 percent of the total district while residential buildings make up just 6.3 percent. Should the area maintain its current zoning regulations, the study projected just 756 new housing units would be added over 10 years, but said there would be a potential 3,225 new units with rezoning.
Citing previous rezonings in Downtown Brooklyn, the Financial District and Hudson Yards, where commercial space has been turned into residential, retail and entertainment use, the Alliance wants existing commercial buildings converted on a mass scale to apartments and homes. The study does not address what proportion would be reserved for affordable housing.
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The push to rezone is two pronged — Manhattan remains shortage of housing, as evidenced by the vacancy rate for homes, which stood at just 2.35 percent in October 2022. On the commercial side, hybrid and remote work have kept office vacancy rates high – according to the alliance’s study, in May 2022 just eight percent of office workers were back in-person five days a week.
The Alliance says the Garment District seems especially vulnerable, saying “office space attractiveness seems to remain low in the District, which spurs questions of competitiveness and sustainability in the long run.” It highlights the 5.3 million square feet of office space being added to the adjacent Hudson Yards by 2025, and says that “the Garment District office space is expected to suffer from even higher vacancy rates than currently.”
A rezoning would be seen as the death knell for the once purely industrial area. The neighborhood was the world’s capital of clothing manufacturing in the 1940s, but after World War II, standardized production methods became a challenge to the schmatta trade and has declined since the 1950s. In 1987, the Special Garment Center District was created as a way of preventing fashion warehouses from being converted into office space. The Garment District Alliance followed in 1993 to work with local businesses, residents and city leadership to improve quality of life and further develop the area.
In 2003, Department of Labor (DOL) statistics showed that fashion industry businesses were still the largest percentage of district usage, but apparel manufacturing continued to decline and small sections of the area were subsequently rezoned in 2005 to build more housing. The end result, however, was an influx in hotels rather than residential buildings, as 29 new hotels were permitted and only 976 apartments were built from the rezoning.
Data from the alliance’s study shows that apparel manufacturing jobs have decreased by 83 percent between 2000 and 2020 and by 50 percent from 2016 to 2020, leaving just 2,500 rag trade workers that year, the last for which statistics are available. The alliance now says that the Garment District as a purely commercial area has largely gone the way of the US garment industry. “Business as usual will not help the Garment District navigate a changing workplace landscape and consequent office market fluctuations and uncertainties,” reads the study.
“For a district that is dependent on its 9-5 worker population, current shifts like hybrid work hurt the neighborhood in many different ways. There is no doubt that during economic downturns and shutdowns mixed-use neighborhoods fare better than solely business districts. Adding full-time population to the District is a win-win scenario to help the entire ecosystem withstand shifting trends.”