By Roland Li
In the last decade, Elizabeth Berger has witnessed not merely the rebirth of the World Trade Center, but the transformation of Lower Manhattan. As president of the Downtown Alliance, the largest business improvement district in the United States, Berger has been one of the area’s biggest advocates, and her organization’s efforts have contributed to one of the most dramatic changes in the city.
“We’re about telling the story of Lower Manhattan on behalf of owners, on behalf of brokers, on behalf of the institutions, to attract commercial tenants, to attract residents and to grow tourism,” said Berger. “One of the founding ideas was the idea that creating a vital residential neighborhood would support, not supplant, Lower Manhattan as a compelling business. That has turned out to be the case.”
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the area south of Chambers Street had around 26,000 residents and the commercial vacancy rate was 4.8%, much improved from the mid-1990s. Now, the residential population has doubled to over 55,000 and the Alliance reported a commercial vacancy rate of 9.7% in August.
Berger said that all facets of life downtown are entwined – and all recent indicators are positive. Although the neighborhood has long been home to historic attractions like Trinity Church, the Stock Exchange, South Street Seaport and the Statue of Liberty, the past decade has seen the number of hotels grow from six to 18, with seven more planned. There were 9 million visitors in 2010, but there are also 10 colleges with over 39,000 students and numerous new residential projects.
“It’s about residential life and tourism supporting commercial attraction, with retail and restaurants being the metric,” said Berger, who will have been a resident of the neighborhood for 30 years in December.
When it was founded in 1995 by David Rockefeller, the Alliance sought to promote urban practices that were “radical proposals” at the time: seeking residential growth, government-sponsored projects and creation of parks. But the area was long known as a workday hub and a ghost town after 5 p.m., a bias that remains for some New Yorkers.
To inform both locals and tourists, the Alliance prints over 2 million maps, guides and brochures a year. It also provides services such as street cleaning, the free Downtown Connection bus service and public office space at the Hive at 55. The Alliance, a non-profit, is funded by assessments from local business owners.
To truly promote the area, the Downtown Alliance seeks to understand its population, tenants and demographics through research.
There are many surprises in the numbers. Condé Nast’s lease at One World Trade Center made it the 63rd media tenant, behind recent arrivals like the Daily News and American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer.
“I think it comes down to two things: value and the ability to attract talent,” said Berger, in regards to companies moving downtown. “I don’t think people move or businesses relocate because of patriotic reasons.”
47% of residents own their homes, and six new grade schools have opened in the last two years. In a 2010 survey, 87% of residents cited the quality of life as the reason to live in Lower Manhattan, and transit, safety and access to parks and waterfront were also major incentives.
“People want to be in a hot, exciting, active community. They want to be part of the growth. They want to follow where others have led,” said Berger.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Berger walked across Austin J. Tobin Plaza at the foot of the towers, named for the executive director of the Port Authority who was one of the masterminds behind the Trade Center. She saw the first plane hit, and immediately thought of her children, who attended local schools. Her apartment, which overlooked the Trade Center, was closed and she had to live elsewhere for months. But the tragedy did not deter her commitment to downtown.
“That made me want to come back. That made me want to redouble my efforts,” she said. “It’s not the first time Lower Manhattan has experienced profound devastation. In 1836, the entire financial services and insurance business burned to the ground. It was rebuilt, it came back. The great crash of ’29 happened here. So I think the end of Lower Manhattan has been greatly exaggerated. The tireless work to rebuild has always paid off.”