Volume 19 Issue 53 | May 18 -24, 2007

Downtown Alliance president steps down after 2 years

By Skye H. McFarlane

The voice of the Downtown business community will soon have to find a new mouthpiece. Eric Deutsch, the popular and oft-quoted president of the Downtown Alliance, is resigning his post to accept a job developing real estate in the private sector.

“I didn’t expect to leave the Alliance at this point. It’s a great institution. The staff is amazing and they do great work everyday,” Deutsch said of the Alliance, which runs Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district. “I was provided a professional opportunity that I could not turn down. I spent the last 18 years in the public and non-profit sector. Private offers have come in the past, but it’s rare to get one where the people you feel good about and the place you feel good about.”

The offer he could not refuse came from the Clarett Group, a New York-based development company where Deutsch will become a managing director on June 1. Deutsch met Clarett’s co-founders, Veronica Hackett and Neil C. Klarfeld, when he was working with the city’s Economic Development Corporation. He became friends with Klarfeld and stayed in touch with Hackett after Klarfeld passed away in 2004. The job offer came as Clarett is expanding beyond its New York residential portfolio, picking up commercial projects and developments in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

In an interview, Deutsch looked back on his time with the Alliance and looked ahead to the challenges that the Alliance’s new president will face as Downtown continues to rebuild.

Though Deutsch’s tenure at the Alliance was relatively short (he started in October 2005), the last year and a half has been a time of whirlwind change for Lower Manhattan. Large-scale public and private developments have begun to reshape the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Downtown office market has skyrocketed back from its post-9/11 slump, with vacancy rates at pre-9/11 lows and rents rising to as high as $60 per square foot in some buildings.

Deutsch said that while neither he nor the Alliance can take sole credit for the positive turns in the office market, he believes that they have been a part of the change. The Alliance actively promotes Downtown spaces to firms and retailers and then supports those efforts by trying to make the neighborhood more attractive, both physically and psychologically. The group does everything from cleaning streets to designing new lamp posts to hosting music, speaking and dining events in the neighborhood.

Beyond those programs, the Alliance’s biggest task, Deutsch said, is to speak out and advocate on behalf of the community — whether that means lobbying for the continuation of a federal tax break or cajoling construction crews to be more mindful of the local merchants. Deutsch has been the Alliance’s public voice in many of these battles, speaking with every newspaper in the city about the challenges and possibilities of Downtown development.

“We need to speak with a single voice,” Deutsch said. “Acting collectively helps tremendously in getting things done.”

Deutsch said that his fondest individual memories of his time at the Alliance include watching the River to River summer music festival grow and co-hosting an event with celebrity chef Rachael Ray.

On a large scale, Deutsch is pleased that the office market Downtown has begun to attract a more diverse array of businesses, beyond the standard Wall St. banks and law firms. Smaller businesses and firms in other sectors, like publishing, non-profits and architecture, will help to fill Downtown’s smaller, older office buildings. The diversity, he said, will also help protect Downtown from a downturn in the stock market.

While Deutsch is glad that the Lower Manhattan population has grown, making Downtown into more of a 24-hour community, he said it is encouraging that several office buildings have recently decided to forgo condo conversions.

“Apartments have huge demands on the local resources like parks and schools,” Deutsch said. “Office space, on the other hand, brings in jobs and people who spend in the neighborhood and a tax base, which in turn can pay for the amenities you need in the neighborhood.”

The Alliance will likely appoint an interim president as the search for a replacement continues.

In addition to keeping an eye on quality of life issues like illegal vendors and improper construction work, Deutsch hopes his successor will be able to finish off the Alliance’s streetscape program, which involves putting uniform lighting and curbs throughout the neighborhood. He also hopes the new president will continue to improve the storefronts of small businesses and work to promote the “classic” office buildings and retail spaces on the east side of the district, since they will face increasing competition from the new World Trade Center towers.

Deutsch said he will miss the staff, as well as the East River view from his 33rd floor office at 120 Broadway. What he will not miss is the frustration of dealing with dozens of different agencies in trying to get construction relief for small businesses in the neighborhood.

“It’s frustrating, sometimes, when the quality of life stuff is out of your control,” Deutsch said. “You’re so familiar with the territory, with the problems, but you don’t write the permits or own the land. So you spend lots of time trying to convince people to be helpful.”

He said he worked to build upon and expand the programs established by past Alliance leaders like current Trinity Real Estate president Carl Weisbrod.

“I believe you build on what’s there, make what’s there thrive,” Deutsch said. “Life’s too short to say, ‘It’s got to be my idea.’”

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