47th Street Diamond District to get a big ass building
, 03:46 PM
Diamonds are forever - but districts...
Sunday, November 19th, 2006
When you think "Manhattan" do you think, "It's nice, but I sure wish it were a little less fun to explore?"
If so, you're in luck! In just a few short years the city has successfully rid itself of all or most of the Fulton Fish Market, the Toy District, the Flower District, the Garment District and any actual meatpacking in the Meatpacking District. Those preferring marble lobbies, watermelon martinis and Commerce Banks can only cheer the change.
There is one district, however, that has remained stubbornly mired in old New York charm. It's a place that manages to be both dingy and dazzling. A place where you can buy a million-dollar ring or sell your grandma's tarnished brooch. It's the Diamond District - 47th St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves. - and, just like grandma's brooch, it's a survivor.
Or at least it was, until last week.
That's when the city's Industrial Development Agency voted to give developer Gary Barnett a 10-year, $37 million tax break to build a 40story jewelry exchange in the middle of the block.
With this subsidy - still to be finalized - the new building will be able to offer below-market rents. These rents will siphon stores off the street. When they rush in, the street itself will empty out. And when those empty shells become Staples or Starbucks or simply midtown office space, the Diamond District will have disappeared. It's like melting down a treasure chest of estate jewelry into a single lump of metal. And we, the taxpayers, will have financed this loss.
Clearly, the city doesn't see it that way. Barnett successfully argued that the diamond business is limping along and somehow only 750,000 square feet of fancy skyscraper can save it. "It is essential to reviving an industry that has fled elsewhere," said a spokesman for Barnett's company, Extell.
But while it's true that many jewelry manufacturing jobs have fled the city, this was not for lack of space. How much space does a diamond take up? Those jobs went overseas for the same reason so many other manufacturing jobs did: cheaper labor. A skyscraper won't bring them back.
At the same time, the Diamond District's retailers and distributors have been chugging along. Last year, about 6,000 people were employed in the jewelry business in Manhattan, a number unchanged since 2000. About 90% of all diamonds in America still pass through the district. And, speaking as a window shopper, there is simply nothing as thrilling as being drawn, cajoled or even dragged into one of the street's gleaming stores only to discover booth after booth after booth of glittering jewels. It's like slipping into the Arabian Nights.
If the city really wants to preserve this industry, why destabilize this gem of a block?
"Look," says Phillip Weisner, president of the jewelry store Kestenbaum & Weisner, "people go to SoHo. They could have put all the galleries in one building, but would that bring more people? Look at Restaurant Row. Should all the restaurants be in one building?" Same with the diamond biz. "It's not a building, it's a district."
A district filled with tiny, tempting stores. And as we all know, good things come in small packages.