Alliance president who was passionate about Downtown, Liz Berger, 53, dies

Liz Berger, Downtown Alliance president, announcing a grant program for small businesses affected by Superstorm Sandy on Nov. 19, 2012, three weeks after the storm. .Downtown Express file photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Liz Berger, Downtown Alliance president, announcing a grant program for small businesses affected by Superstorm Sandy on Nov. 19, 2012, three weeks after the storm. Downtown Express file photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | [This Aug. 5, 2013 post was updated Aug. 6, 2013] Elizabeth Berger, president and C.E.O. of the Alliance for Downtown New York, died on Aug. 5 of pancreatic cancer. She had turned 53 just two days before her death.

She became president of the Downtown Alliance in November 2007. Under her direction, the Alliance championed the Fulton Street Transit Center, the reconstruction of the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Fiterman Hall and the enactment of post-9/11 commercial leasing incentives.

There were many other accomplishments, big and small. She saw to it that the route of the free Downtown Connection bus service was expanded, she supervised the establishment of Hive at 55, a co-working facility for freelancers and entrepreneurs and directed three comprehensive planning studies of Lower Manhattan.

“Liz lived down here with her family for 30 years,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1, who knew Berger as a friend and neighbor. “She lived through Sept. 11th and Sandy. She adored Lower Manhattan and was passionate about it.“

In a November 2010 column published in Downtown Express, Berger explained why she loved Lower Manhattan. “The happy truth is that Lower Manhattan, home to some of the world’s biggest businesses and tallest buildings, is also a little village,” she wrote, “a place where neighbors know each other, shopkeepers wave and everyone gets together on the ball fields.”

In a November 2012 interview, she explained what had brought her to Lower Manhattan and why she stayed.

“I didn’t have to be convinced to move to Lower Manhattan,” she said. “I did it on my own 30 years ago. It has what every New Yorker wants — the ability to walk to work, doormen and value in terms of rent. I stayed because of the tremendous sense of community, the beauty, the architecture, the proximity to the water, the ability to get anywhere in the region via public transportation and the profound sense of history.”

Berger looked at the big picture, but also at the small things that the community needed to make it more hospitable and attractive, said Hughes.

“This last spring there was a planting down on Wall Street because the park down there had been damaged by the surge [from Sandy},” she recalled. “Liz was out there, planting things herself.”

Elizabeth Harrie Berger was born on August 3, 1960 in New York City. She grew up in New York City, Buffalo and Providence, Rhode Island. She graduated from Yale University.

She packed an enormous amount into her 53 years. Prior to her time with the Alliance she established and built government relations practices at the law firms Lord Day & Lord Barrett Smith and LeBoeuf, Lamb Greene & MacRae and the law offices of Claudia Wagner. She is also credited with creating the Department of Government and External Affairs at Lincoln Center. She served as an assistant mayoral representative to the New York City Council during the Koch administration.

She was at various times a board director of The Municipal Art Society, Film Forum, Second Stage Theatre, American Museum of Natural History Planetarium Authority, the New York Building Congress, and, from 1999 to 2005, a member of C.B. 1. She was also a mayoral appointee to the board of the Trust for Governors Island.

“She was more than an advocate for Lower Manhattan, she was a partner in building its future,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “As new transit hubs, skyscrapers, full access to our waterfront and a fresh vitality emerge downtown, Liz’s influences are everywhere to be seen.”

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver mourned Berger as one of Lower Manhattan’s “great champions.”

“I have lost a true friend,” he said in a statement. “Liz was one of the smartest, most dynamic and most dedicated community leaders that we have ever had here in Lower Manhattan and she will be sorely missed. She helped guide our community through our critical rebuilding, working closely with businesses and residents to establish this neighborhood as one of our city’s finest. Those of us who knew Liz will never forget her warm and generous nature and her unwavering commitment to her Lower Manhattan neighbors. My heart goes out to her family and she is in all of our thoughts and prayers.”

Borough of Manhattan President Scott Stringer, in a statement, lauded Berger’s “dedication, vision and innovative spirit” and said she was “directly responsible for some of the great additions to Downtown life.”  He specifically mentioned “Manhattan’s first co-working facility for entrepreneurs and most recently, the $1.5 million grant program for local businesses affected by Hurricane Sandy” — the first major grant program for that community after the storm and for many, the first glimmer of hope.

“Her accomplishments at the Downtown Alliance and throughout her exceptional career are too many to mention,” said Stringer, “but what those of us who knew Liz will remember most is her friendship, loyalty and deep commitment to her community.  I consider myself lucky to have counted Liz among my friends and colleagues. My heart goes out to her family.”

She is survived by her husband Frederick Kaufman, daughter Phoebe, son Julian, her mother Anita, and brother Gideon. There will be a memorial service for Berger in the fall.

“It’s a great loss,” said Hughes, who has lived in Lower Manhattan for 25 years. “We used to joke with each other about how much we loved Downtown. ‘If you’ll stay, I’ll stay!’ she would say.”

Originally posted August 5, 2013

More from around NYC