Handle With Blair: Barbara Blair Is the Woman to Know at the Garment District Alliance
“It’s not your grandfather’s Garment District.”
That’s a phrase that Barbara Blair, the president of the Garment District Alliance, likes to trot out to describe the neighborhood that 20 years ago was home to 36,925 garmento jobs. That number shrunk to 20,643 last year.
The dwindling amount of garment manufacturing space (and in turn the number of jobs) is not unique to the area bounded by West 35th and West 41st Streets and Fifth and Ninth Avenues; nationally, production has shifted overseas. Meanwhile, there has been an influx of hotels and TAMI, or technology, advertising, media and information services, tenants in the Garment District. Indeed, Blair said since 2005, 33 hotels have been built in the district, with 10 in the pipeline.
Blair, 59, a Park Slope, Brooklyn mother of three (ages 23, 26 and 27) recalls when she had her first job in New York City 30 years ago, she commuted by way of Penn Station to the Museum of Modern Art where she worked in special events.
“I used to avoid this neighborhood like the plague,” Blair said. “That’s a lot of people’s memories of this neighborhood. It was a single-industry neighborhood. There were crack vials all over the place. There were iffy-looking people. We need to change that perception.”
Commercial Observer met with Blair for lunch and a walking tour, all within the Garment District. We dined at the trendy Parker & Quinn in the Refinery Hotel at 64 West 39th Street, and the tour included visits to garment business holdouts M&J Trimming at 1008 Avenue of the Americas and Mood Designer Fabrics at 225 West 37th Street, as well as to folks from the new guard—Neoscape (whose offices include a ping-pong table and a bar) at 256 West 38th Street and The Skylark, a 30th-floor cocktail lounge with stunning city views and Abigail Kirsch event spaces at 200 West 39th Street. Blair bumped into people she knew on the street, was able to get us access to an otherwise closed space and was verbally accosted by a man on the street.
But, hey, the aggressive stranger was eerily reminiscent of the Garment District of yore.
Commercial Observer: How many factories are there left in the Garment District?
Blair: We believe there are 350 actual factories.
What’s the tenant mix like in the Garment District?
One of the things that’s terrific about the Garment District is for the past 15 years we have all kinds of new tenants: information services, creative services, business services. The buildings are essentially full and doing really well and getting good rents. The reason is because the city had to stop enforcing manufacturing 20 years ago. If they had enforced it, you would have had buildings that were completely empty because there wasn’t enough manufacturing to consume the space. The side streets had special Garment District overlay zoning. The idea is 50 percent of side-street space would be preserved for manufacturing. So 9 million square feet of space was impacted by zoning, but that meant 4.5 million had to be preserved.
When was that?
The special Garment District overlay was 1987. What happened is Times Square was being cleaned up and improved. Billions of dollars were going into Times Square. The industry was worried if that area wasn’t protected, the trickledown would push the garment industry out. So you’ve continued to see production decrease post-zoning at the same rate as pre-zoning.
Why is that?
I don’t think zoning was a meaningful tool for retaining production when you are going up against global forces. The problem is you have global labor markets that were cheaper than American labor. Zoning is not a tool that is up for protecting against that kind of trend. What happened is the city stopped enforcing and the buildings continued to fill up.
What types of tenants still haven’t landed in the Garment District?
I consider this an advantage, but most of our companies are smaller independent companies.
Who’s your biggest landlord?
Empire State Reality Trust. They own three buildings in the district.
What are the rents like in the Garment District?
They are still lower than in other areas in Midtown because of zoning, but because of market forces over the past 10 years they’ve gone up. It used to be $18 to $20 per square foot. Now it’s in the mid-$40s on the side streets. The avenues are in the mid-$50s. The neighborhood is finally viewed as a Midtown Manhattan business district with hotels.
How are the hotels faring?
They are doing well. They are priced $50 a night under Times Square and have some of the highest occupancy rates in the city. They are in Midtown where there’s terrific transportation. We have an open space now [known as Broadway Boulevard]. Restaurants have opened. There are six rooftop bars now. A bunch of places have opened second locations. It’s a really viable and underserved area. There were no major national brands in the Garment District until recently. That’s changed. Shake Shack, Papyrus, Urban Outfitters [all opened].
For how long have you been the president of the alliance?
I got the job in 1995, so 22 years. It’s been really interesting. When I went to that neighborhood, if you came out of your office at 6 at night, every single shutter in the neighborhood was down. It was closed, and there would be some crack head sitting on the stoop on 39th Street. It was incredible. I lived through the entire change from a crime perspective. But then new owners coming in and the rezoning of Hudson Yards in 2005 brought a huge amount of development. It’s changed dramatically.
What is your mission today?
Our mission is to get the brokers to understand this is the new Garment District. It’s changed dramatically from how you remember it. What we are trying to do is to rebrand the Garment District as a neighborhood with incredible loft buildings, exactly the same as Soho. [There are] office buildings on the avenues, the best transportation in New York City and [it is] an authentic Midtown Manhattan location. Every single immigrant group that ever came to this city came through the Garment District. People are connected to it.
The mayor recently announced a plan to create nearly 200,000 square feet of garment manufacturing space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. What do you think of the idea?
The mayor, in an effort to ensure the sustainability of manufacturing in New York City, has invested heavily in a site in Sunset Park that could be an optional, alternative site for manufacturers. We are totally in support of the Sunset Park initiative because it ensures the sustainability of production in New York City. Forty percent of our constituency is design, marketing and sales. So designer showrooms are still largely clustered in the Garment District. What we’ve learned is clusters are developing elsewhere, primarily in Brooklyn and Queens. Although we are the largest cluster, certainly the industry isn’t geographic specific the way it was 30 and 40 and 50 years ago. That’s true of almost all businesses now. For us, it’s really important to continue to attract designers so they can produce somewhere. If you’re not going to have factories in the Garment District, you need factories somewhere in New York.
The mayor is reportedly working on a rezoning plan in the Garment District, which would ease the regulations on manufacturers. Are you guys involved in this?
The city has indicated, as has been reported, that they are looking at the topic of the overlay zoning in the Garment District. We are aware of that and are in discussions on that topic. The zoning needs to be recalibrated to be reflective of the growth of other industries that are interested in Midtown Manhattan spaces, particularly in Class B and C buildings and the decentralization of the fashion industry.
What is the alliance’s budget?
It’s $7.8 million at this minute, but July 1, it goes to $8.8 million. It’s gone up. [That’s] from our assessments, which come from property owners.
You don’t get city money?
The only time I get city money is when I apply to capital funds from one of our elected officials that has a capital budget. If I get that money it’s for a specific project. For example, one of the problems we have in the Garment District is it has horrible lighting on the avenues. About 22 years ago we did a side-street lighting program. We spent $800,000 on it. We put lights on all the buildings on the side streets. Two years ago we converted for $780,000 all the lights to LEDs [on the side streets]. The avenues still aren’t lit.
What’s your plan for the avenues?
We have been applying to the city for a number of years to ask them to improve the lighting, add lighting, let us add lighting. If you stand in the Garment District on the avenues at night you look to the north and you have this glow of Times Square. If you look to the south you have Macy’s and the retail environments. The avenues of the Garment District are dark, and you need more lighting.
How much money is that going to cost?
Right now, we have $450,000 in that pipeline. We have another $150,000 that will go into the pipeline with [the Department of Transportation] for lighting. We were just approved last year by DOT for a permanent plaza on Broadway, so the plaza you see now is painted asphalt. The plan is to raise the level of the asphalt so it will be contiguous with the sidewalk and it will be a proper plaza with trees and watering fountains. That runs from 36th to 41st Streets on Broadway.
Any other things that need improvement in the Garment District?
Ground-floor retail. Every time you see a new retailer come in it’s better than the retailer that we had there. We still have a lot of fabric and bead stores, but those are some of the places that peope love because they identify the neighborhood.
What will we see in the district in 10 years?
I hope ground-floor retail has completely morphed. One thing that is important to remember is on the avenues you can have national brands. Because of the floor plates on the side streets, we tend to have boutique retail.
Mostly food. People never thought you’d do food on the side streets. We have some of the highest pedestrian counts in the city. I’ve got Penn Station, Port Authority, it’s a flood of humanity during rush hour. So there is a huge amount of exposure. Black Iron Burger just opened up. District Social, when they opened, I took people for drinks one time. We went in, we had a beer. A year later I couldn’t get in. They said, “We’re full.” I said, “I just want to go to the bar and get a beer.” They said, “The fire department says we have too many people. This is happy hour after work.”