LA's Fashion District Is An Epicenter For American-Made Clothing. Can It Survive Downtown’s Housing Boom?
The Los Angeles city council recently passed a new plan for 100,000 new homes in Downtown L.A. over the next two decades.
The new Downtown L.A. community plan, which city planners worked on for years, doubles the areas where developers can build housing. The city will allow apartments and condos in areas previously reserved for manufacturing — areas like the Fashion District.
Garment workers and clothing brands in L.A.’s already fragile apparel industry now worry they could be pushed out by a new wave of downtown development.
After working for larger fashion companies for decades, Mary Price started a small brand called Ocean + Main that makes its clothing in downtown’s Fashion District.
“New York used to have a very robust fashion district, just like L.A.,” Price said. “But unfortunately, because of real estate development there, that has completely gone away.”
L.A.’s garment industry won some major protections in downtown’s new community plan, such as requirements for manufacturing space in future Fashion District housing developments. But some downtown business advocates say those provisions could stifle housing growth.
“Everybody wants housing, but it’s got to make sense,” said Mark Chatoff, owner of the California Flower Mall, a Fashion District property he hopes to redevelop.
An epicenter for U.S. fashion industry
A few floors above the streets of Downtown L.A., sewing machines hum as workers stitch together Ocean + Main dresses.
Price points out the French seams carefully sewn into a silk caftan.
“You don't see any raw edge. It's really clean,” Price said. “It's a highly skilled move, especially on a fabric that’s as delicate and as expensive as silk.”
If you buy clothing made in the U.S. there’s a good chance it comes from a factory just like this. L.A. accounts for an estimated 83% of all sales of clothing cut and sewn in America, and downtown’s Fashion District is the epicenter of that activity.
Price wants the Fashion District’s 20,000 garment workers to make sustainable clothes for a living wage.
She said her goal is “to make apparel in a way that moves the industry forward, and is more forward-thinking about how we treat people and the planet.”
This economic activity all takes place in a world many Angelenos never get to see. But Price can look out the window and spot garment manufacturing in all directions.
“That's an apparel building. That's an apparel building,” she said. “On the other side, there's three more apparel buildings. It's floor to ceiling of people doing exactly what we're doing.”
Why leaders want a downtown housing boom
The new downtown community plan aims to place 20% of L.A.’s new housing growth on just 1% of the city’s land.
Elected leaders hope to continue Downtown L.A.’s transformation from a troubled urban core full of vacant storefronts and empty apartments to a bustling residential community.
Lawmakers say concentrating new housing in dense areas helps achieve the city’s climate change goals by encouraging residents to use public transit instead of cars. Politicians are also skittish about densifying single-family neighborhoods, which make up 74% of the city’s residential land.
And city planners want to allow developers to turn under-used commercial buildings into housing. The L.A. Fashion District Business Improvement District estimates the neighborhood has an 18% vacancy rate in buildings dedicated to manufacturing.
Looking at one nearby garment building, Price said, “People look at that and go, ‘Oh, that'd be a cool loft space.’ Well, you're displacing a whole industry by looking at it as an expensive, high-end loft.”
Is there a place for clothing and housing?
Roberto Vazquez thinks the Fashion District’s future can accommodate both clothing and housing. He’s an architect with Omgivning, a firm that specializes in repurposing old downtown commercial buildings into housing.
“We just haven't created enough housing” over the past 60 years, Vazquez said. “The city of Los Angeles is in a housing crisis.”
Under state law, the city of L.A. has to plan for 456,000 new homes by 2029. Vazquez said the downtown community plan presents an opportunity to create much of that badly needed housing.
He envisions a Fashion District where renters live on the top floors of buildings, while garment workers continue to make clothes on the ground floor. Such mixed-use developments could be challenging to design, Vazquez said — will residents really want to live above the noise and bustle of an apparel factory? But he thinks it’s possible to create harmonious buildings that cater to different uses.
“There's plenty of opportunity to satisfy everyone's needs,” Vazquez said. “Let's not displace the garment workers. Let's build new housing.”
Some downtown property owners say city council members ended up putting too many restrictions on new housing in the Fashion District.
The family of Chatoff ran the California Flower Mall property as a textile factory for decades. In 2008, he repurposed the building, trading fabric for flowers.
“I had to switch from textile to floral because there was no textile business,” Chatoff said. “That business has been dying, unfortunately, for a long time.”
Now, Chatoff wants to build 323 units of housing in a 15-story tower above the flower market. But he said height restrictions and requirements to include manufacturing space in future Fashion District housing developments, as well as freight elevators and loading zones in some areas, could kill those plans.
“I've watched the plan evolve and then completely be decimated, for I believe possibly political reasons,” Chatoff said, referring to lobbying by garment workers.
Garment workers also need more affordable housing
From his Westlake apartment overlooking the downtown skyline, Francisco Mancilla — who has worked in the Fashion District for 20 years — said he’s glad workers won those concessions.
“Not only for me, but for a new generation of workers, that is what makes me happy,” said Mancilla, speaking in Spanish.
L.A.’s apparel industry already faces stiff competition from a torrent of cheap fast fashion made overseas by companies like Shein. Mancilla said lately he’s been losing hours and seeing opportunities dry up.
“I feel sad because it has been part of my source of income for many years, and the heart of this district,” Mancilla said. “It’s sad to look at something that you once saw flower slowly fading.”
On a good day, Mancilla can earn more than $150 putting buttons and buttonholes on garments. But often he earns far less, because many employers still pay workers for each piece of clothing they finish, no matter how long that work takes.
Some Southern California garment workers have been paid as little as $1.58 per hour, according to a recent U.S. Labor Department report.
“It is very difficult for me, because I’m the breadwinner,” Mancilla said. “We have to have a certain amount of income each month to cover the bills, the rent and other necessities.”
Mancilla said he knows the city needs more housing, especially affordable housing. But he doubts his family will be able to afford any of the new housing coming to downtown.
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