Just a few years ago, District Social was one of the hottest spots in the Garment District. Now it’s almost empty.
The 10,000 square foot restaurant, bar and event space grew its business 30% for three years leading into 2020. Then, the pandemic hit. District Social closed for 27 months, reduced its staff from 64 to eight, and now is on the verge of permanent closure. The problem? No customers.
“There is nobody here. This neighborhood is empty compared to what it used to be,” said the venue’s co-owner, Bennett Page.
Office occupancy continues to dwindle as hybrid work persists. Office occupancy reached 43.8% during the week of October 5, according to according to Kastle Systems, which measures card swipes in office buildings.
But more residents, and customers, might be on the way. On September 28, the board of the Garment District Alliance, which is a Business Improvement District that represents the area roughly between 5th and 9th Avenues and 35th to 41st Streets in Manhattan, encouraged the organization’s staff leadership to share a study with elected officials that outlines how the neighborhood could add more than 3,000 residential units over the next decade by converting older, underused office or manufacturing buildings. The study lays out a three pronged approach to converting these buildings to residential — zoning changes, reinstituting a tax incentive program for building owners, and investing in public spaces, according to a summary obtained by Columbia News Service. The Alliance declined to comment on this study.
Building apartments in old office buildings is not easy. According to the Department of City Planning, any potential zoning change will require the local community board and the Borough President to weigh in before the City Planning Commission votes on the change. If approved by the Commission, the City Council will vote on final approval.
Residential conversions are not a foregone conclusion. The Alliance will not hire lobbyists or lawyers to advocate for this report; implementation ultimately relies on government officials’ support. Local City Council Member Keith Powers and city planners have indicated interest in repurposing scantily-occupied commercial space, but have not fully committed to championing residential conversion in the Garment District.
“Midtown is the largest commercial district in the nation’s largest city, and is absolutely critical to New York and our entire region’s economy,” Council Member Powers said in a statement. “As we rebuild, it is imperative we’re looking at potentially redeveloping unused sites to tackle our city’s challenges.”
The Department of City Planning expressed a similar sentiment. “Supporting the success of our transit-rich business districts is a top priority,” spokesperson Joe Marvilli said. “Adaptive reuse of obsolete buildings has long been part of our city’s success and will continue to be in the future.”
Earlier this year, the City Council established the Office Adaptive Reuse Task Force, a group chaired by the Department of City Planning Director Dan Garodnick to explore potential alternate uses for emptying office buildings. The Task Force will issue recommendations by the end of the year.
Change will not come fast enough for business owners like Page. “Adding residents to the neighborhood would make a huge difference,” he said. “Though it won’t come in time to save the current businesses struggling to survive.”