Architecture review: Making the fashion district more, well, fashionable

Design Trust unveils vision for garment center
By James Gardner | October 18, 2012 05:30PM

Back in the 1990s, I wrote that gentrification would never come to the East Village, a statement that time has thoroughly disproved. Thus chastened, I would no longer put money on the notion that Manhattan’s Garment District can never become a zone of gentrification. A new report from the Design Trust for Public Space, “Making Midtown: A New Vision for a 21st Century Garment District,” presents some bold suggestions for achieving that vision, and in the process adding some $340 million to the New York economy. The report can be downloaded for free here.

It is one of the paradoxes of New York that the center of its fashion industry, of beauty and chic, is perhaps the least lovely, the least fashionable part of the five boroughs. To realize the Design Trust’s vision, therefore, will require some doing. Speaking in purely personal terms, I am aware of few parts of Manhattan as charmless and bleak and overbearing as the Garment District, which stretches from Ninth Avenue to Broadway And From 40th Street to 34th Street.

Hells Kitchen and Chelsea, Soho, the Meatpacking District and the East Village, have all revealed heretofore unimagined charm. In the Garment District, however, which employs some 7,200 workers in fashion, that charm is, as yet, nowhere to be found. Once much of New York was a hive of manufacturing and the Garment District is the main, if not the only, survivor of that vanished industrial base. But there are fewer workers here than in years past and by night the place is desolate. Also, unless I misrecollect, there is hardly a tree or a plant visible anywhere.

To remedy that, the Making Midtown report has a number of suggestions. Unlike previous attempts at redevelopment, this report seeks not to replace workers, as was largely the case in Soho, but to preserve and expand the area into a center for the entire fashion industry. That in itself would imbue the area with the requisite chic. At the same time, efforts would be made to make the place more welcoming, by diversifying occupancy with wider streets, elevated parks in some areas, trees, snazzier signage and far better lighting than we find there now.

The Design Trust advocates offering incentives to developers throughout Midtown in exchange for preserving the garment workers in their present context. It also foresees, inevitably, that rents will increase. Whether the interests of both sides can be satisfied is an open question and the result of this proposed experiment in social engineering is unclear. But simply by recognizing a problem and then shining the light of human intelligence upon it, the Design Trust has done a service for the citizens of New York.