Getting back to business with art and trains


Liz Berger, president of the Downtown Alliance, administers Lower Manhattan’s Business Improvement District, the largest in the city. She answered Downtown Express questions on the state of Downtown.

What’s the best and most challenging parts of your job?

The best parts of my job are also the most challenging: trying to make daily life better now for Downtown’s property owners, tenants, residents, workers and visitors, while advancing Downtown as a global model for a 21st century central business district. That’s a tall order, and it’s thanks to the Alliance’s visionary and committed board and talented staff that we’re making things happen. Of course, the two-block commute from home to work is great, too!

There is no design or fundraising underway for the proposed W.T.C. Performing Arts Center. How important is it to the rebuilding efforts and do you think it should be made a higher priority?

The Performing Arts Center will add tremendous value to the rebuilt World Trade Center, animating the street and the skyline, creating yet another destination and increasing the value of the surrounding commercial property. What’s great about the Joyce Theater Foundation proposal is that it includes something New York City lacks: an 1100-seat for dance. This facility will make New York City the dance capital of the United States and there couldn’t be a better location than Downtown, with regional mass transit access, built-in audiences and millions of annual visitors. Programs like the River to River Festival show that culture is a powerful economic driver, and the Performing Arts Center will be no exception.

 What is the effect to the Downtown community of having two large buildings that were badly damaged on 9/11 – the former Deutsche Building and Fiterman Hall –  still up seven years later.

It seems like 130 Liberty St. and now Fiterman Hall are finally coming down. We can debate what took so long and why, but last week’s announcement by the mayor, Assembly speaker and CUNY was great news. These ruined buildings are symbols of what was, not what is, and I’m glad that everyone is now on the same page…

You have been a strong advocate for the completion of the Fulton Transit Center. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority currently has a capital budget deficit of about $14 billion and the agency and the commission headed by Richard Ravitch are reportedly considering a range of options including fare hikes, bridge tolls, congestion pricing and service cuts. Assuming the M.T.A. can find the money to complete the Fulton subway project, why is it more important than other capital projects that will expand the subway system’s capacity?

The Fulton Transit Center was supposed to open in December 2007. The ironic truth is that it was the one project everyone in this community “knew” would get done because it made so much sense and was at a manageable scale. The Fulton Transit Center which the M.T.A. promised us — an architecturally distinctive, above-ground transit center with 20,000 plus square feet of retail and below-ground connections to 11 subway lines — was and remains, for lack of a better phrase, the “gimme” — the one high impact post-9/11 project that could get done quickly and make a difference to Downtown’s commercial owners and tenants, and residents, as they waited for the more complex World Trade Center projects to come on line.

The Fulton Transit Center was designed to acknowledge Downtown’s unsurpassed public transportation network, to send the message about how easy it is to get to Lower Manhattan from anywhere in the tri-state region. And, it was designed to improve the passenger experience for the more than 250,000 daily riders who use the underground station now: to attract and retain employees, residents and visitors. The Fulton Transit Center was such a good idea that the M.T.A. evicted more than 100 small businesses to clear the site and spent $819 million over 6 years before deciding that the above-ground portion of the project was too expensive — leaving a hole in the ground at the intersection of Fulton and Broadway, the crossroads of Downtown.

Finishing the Fulton Transit Center is as important as starting M.T.A. capacity-building projects like the J.F.K. Rail Link [to Lower Manhatan]. One can be accomplished short-term, the others are long-term, and there’s no reason to sacrifice one for the other Downtown.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the Re: Construction art projects you have co-sponsored at construction barriers, and what are the prospects for expanding the program?

People love them! My neighbors love them! Tourists love them and photograph them! National magazines like Art News love them! One of the first wave of projects, GRO Architects’ Best Pedestrian Route, won a 2008 A.I.A. design award. They make people happy by creating a little beauty amid the chaos. The proof of what a difference Re: Construction has made in the daily life of Lower Manhattan is that some of the city contractors have developed their own “Re: Con”-like projects: fence panels screen printed with jonquils and sunsets. I love them!

Perhaps more importantly, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. loved them and gave us a $1.5 million grant to expand the program over 3 years. We have undertaken a second wave of projects and expect to announce the next phase soon. The one thing there’s no shortage of in Lower Manhattan are construction sites.

High-end retailers like Tiffany, Hermes and Whole Foods have opened in Lower Manhattan within the last two years. Do you expect that trend to continue and what kind of new retailers do you hope to see?

Nearly 100 new stores and eateries have opened for business since 2002, led by luxury retailers and national chains. It’s not just Tiffany, Hermes and Whole Foods, but also Maison du Chocolat [and many others]… Paired with long-established Downtown retailers and restauranteurs like Century 21, J&R and Harry’s, there’s quality at every price point in Lower Manhattan. That mix is important.

Despite the current global economic situation, I expect this trend to continue. With 6 million annual tourists, 318,000 workers and now 57,000 residents, we are a strong and underserved market. To share this news with investors, the Downtown Alliance has launched a business-to-business retail marketing campaign that will promote Lower Manhattan at leading industry events and through collateral materials. We are also sharing our wealth of economic and demographic data on the Downtown market with brokers and other industry opinion leaders and decision makers. And, we have developed a holiday marketing campaign designed to position Lower Manhattan as a retail and restaurant destination.

As a 26-year Downtown resident, I can’t believe the current range of retail and restaurant options. Years ago, there were so few local choices. The Alliance’s first foray into retail attraction led to Downtown’s first Amish Market, 10 years ago, and since then, a virtual thousand flowers have bloomed. Maybe the next step is Trader Joe’s?