Volume 20 Issue 20 | Sept. 28 - Oct. 04, 2007

Downtown resident readies to take reins of business district

By Skye H. McFarlane

When former Downtown Alliance President Eric Deutsch left the organization in June, he said that mitigating the impacts of the Lower Manhattan rebuilding effort would continue to be one of the most important — and most frustrating — tasks his successor would face.

Few people were better equipped to understand both the frustrations and the significance of that mission than Alliance board member Elizabeth Berger, who lives on Lower Broadway amidst a bevy of construction projects. On Sept. 18, the Alliance, which runs the Lower Manhattan Business Improvement District, announced that Berger would become the BID’s next president.

In an interview with the Downtown Express last Friday, Berger said that her first order of business when she officially takes the reins in early November will be to tackle “nitty gritty” quality of life tasks like communicating construction information to local businesses and residents, and helping pedestrians find their way through the maze of redevelopment projects.

“The first thing we have to do is work with our partners in government to make daily life better for everyone Downtown,” Berger said.

The Alliance has only had two presidents in its 13-year history, but neither Deutsch nor his predecessor, Carl Weisbrod, lived Downtown. Berger, on the other hand, has lived south of Fulton St. for the past 25 years and has worked in Lower Manhattan off-and-on for roughly half of that time. Both Alliance Chairperson Robert Douglass and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver cited Berger’s “perspective” as an attribute in statements released about her hiring.

Community Board 1 Chairperson Julie Menin also welcomed having a resident, local parent and former C.B. 1 member in charge of the Alliance. “I’m particularly pleased because Liz is a longtime resident Downtown,” Menin said Wednesday. “[She] really understands the needs of residents in the area.”

Still, Berger insisted, her appointment represents “old wine in new bottles” rather than a shift in policy at the Alliance. Berger pointed out that many local business owners and office workers are also Downtown residents. And even where that is not the case, she said, the needs and interests of the business community have always had a confluence with those of residents. Berger said that the Alliance’s work to keep streets clean and provide free arts programming helped keep her family in the neighborhood.

Berger pointed out that the Alliance’s signature services — supplemental security and sanitation provided by red-and-white clad workers — are quality of life initiatives. The Alliance has also long sought to improve the business district by working to turn it into a 24/7 neighborhood with residents, retail and street life in addition to office towers.

Downtown has come far enough toward that goal that the Alliance is no longer pushing for old-stock offices to be converted into residential buildings. So many of these conversions have come on line, Deutsch said in May, that the neighborhood must now work to provide the new residents with services like shops and restaurants. To sustain those retailers during the day, however, the area will continue to need its office towers. Good local retail and the potential to live within walking distance of work is, in turn, attractive to new office workers.

“It’s not only about getting back to where we were before 9/11, but moving forward,” Berger said.

Although Berger has been an Alliance board member since 1998, she is still learning the ins and outs of the Alliance’s cornucopia of programs — which run the gamut from shuttle buses to concerts to helping secure financial incentives for local businesses. Since many of the programs involve collaborations with government agencies and/or non-profit groups, Berger said she is ready to work with “anyone and everyone” to sustain and expand the Alliance’s work.

Berger currently works at the Law Offices of Claudia Wagner, where she advises non-profit groups on working with the government. She also serves on the boards of the Municipal Art Society, the Second Stage Theater and the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. Until she officially starts her Alliance position, Berger said, she is on a “listening tour” to hear the neighborhood’s concerns. For Downtowners, Berger’s presence as a neighbor, P.S. 234 parent and regular spectator at the Battery Park City ballfields should make her ears easy to find.

While the listening tour will help fill in the details, Berger already has a big goal in mind for Lower Manhattan’s future: to “emerge from the dust and the scaffolding as the premier live-work district in the country.”

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