Robert Douglass, who helped to spark and lead Lower Manhattan’s continuing resurgence as a residential community and newly vibrant business district, died Tuesday from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease. He was 85 years old. Less than 24 hours later, the board of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) adopted a resolution urging that the new West Thames pedestrian bridge, now under construction, be named in Mr. Douglass’s honor.
Mr. Douglass served for 20 years as the founding chairman of the Alliance for Downtown New York (a post from which he stepped down in 2015), and was also the chair of the Alliance’s parent organization, the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association. But these were only the most recent chapters in more than five decades of leadership, advocacy, and support for Lower Manhattan.
Charles Urstadt, the founding president and chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, remembers that Mr. Douglass, his Dartmouth fraternity brother and Cornell Law School classmate, called in 1967 on behalf of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller (whom Mr. Douglass served as chief of staff), “and recruited me to work on housing. In particular, he had me in mind for a project that consisted of creating new landfill in the Hudson River, adjacent to the planned site of the World Trade Center. That project became Battery Park City, the most successful development of a planned community in American history, and the anchor behind Lower Manhattan’s ongoing renaissance. It would not exist without the vision and the guidance of Bobby Douglass.”
And Battery Park City was only the most prominent of the Lower Manhattan housing initiatives that Mr. Douglass (in collaboration with Mr. Urstadt) oversaw as part of the Rockefeller administration. Others included Independence Plaza, Confucius Plaza, and Southbridge Towers, which collectively provided homes for thousands of middle-class families, creating a bulwark of stability in what was then an urban frontier.
Mr. Douglass recalled in January 2015, when he was honored with the Alliance’s David Rockefeller Downtown Leadership Award, that, “a group of business leaders all shared the belief that something must be done to stabilize and rebuild a moribund Lower Manhattan. This was no easy feat, of course. But looking back, it is actually the very depth of this challenge that I am now, with the benefit of hindsight, most grateful for. It gave me the chance to work with a phenomenal coalition of visionaries and to become part of a great, and truly epic, urban success story.”
Mr. Douglass remembered the challenges facing the Association in its quest to transform Lower Manhattan into a vibrant, residential community: “the odds didn’t look good. A vacancy rate of over 20 percent, no movie theater, no supermarket, and only one major hotel. The streets were dark and threatening. Graffiti was everywhere. I honestly thought we might start seeing a slew of abandonments and boarded-up properties.”
“But it was clear to all of us that Lower Manhattan also had great promise,” Mr. Douglass continued. “The question became: how do we deliver on that promise?” The primary tool for doing so became the Alliance, a new Business Improvement District created by the Association. In the decades that followed, under Mr. Douglass’s leadership, the Alliance addressed one challenge after another, with security and sanitation services, streetscape and design efforts, crusades of information and advocacy (with a slew of research reports helping to document Lower Manhattan’s potential), branding and marketing campaigns, special events programming, and even free transportation services. (The Downtown Connection is a unique amenity provided by the Alliance; connecting Battery Park City with the South Street Seaport, and 37 stops in between, via a fleet of seven shuttle buses, all free of charge.)
“It’s exhilarating for me to see our vision being realized in ways that have exceeded our most ambitious expectations,” Mr. Douglass concluded at the 2015 award ceremony. “And it has happened despite enormous obstacles, including one of our nation’s gravest tragedies. It’s hard to fathom everything that has changed.”
At the 2015 ceremony, Mr. Urstadt reflected that, “my friend has one character trait that makes him ill-suited for public life: modesty. For that reason, I fear he will disagree with a proposal that I am going to ask all of you to consider. The transilience of Lower Manhattan is creating buildings, streets, and infrastructure projects that cry out for a name worthy of a transformed landscape. Among them is the pedestrian bridge that will soon be erected over West Street, near the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. One of these should bear the name of the man without whom none of this would have been possible: Robert R. Douglass.”
Two months later, the board of the agency providing most of the funding for the new West Thames pedestrian bridge, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), enacted a resolution urging that the span be named for Mr. Douglass. At that meeting, LMDC board member Carl Weisbrod (who also serves as Director of the New York City Department of City Planning and Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission), said, “I would like to propose that this bridge be named after our fellow board member here, mentor to me, and a leader in the downtown community for more than a half a century now, and that’s Bob Douglass.”
Mr. Weisbrod reflected that this was appropriate because, “Bob was the idea behind the Battery Park City Authority, and he’s really worked his entire life in Lower Manhattan to knit together the rest of Lower Manhattan to Battery Park City and make it one community.”
Then-LMDC chair Avi Schick jokingly asked Mr. Douglass (who served on that agency’s board, but did not vote on the naming proposal), “do you want any time for rebuttal?”
Mr. Douglass replied, “I really am overwhelmed by the comments that were made. I didn’t deserve any portion of it. I give credit to so many other people and am delighted by this honor. I’ll try to live up to it by encouraging the government to move those wheels as fast as they can.”
On Wednesday morning, the BPCA board enacted a similar resolution, calling for the bridge to be named after Mr. Douglass. Authority president Shari Hyman said, “he was one of Governor Rockefeller’s architects of what is now Battery Park City, he created the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association and the Downtown Alliance, and he was just a huge contributor to life as we know it in Lower Manhattan.” BPCA chairman and chief executive officer Dennis Mehiel concurred, calling Mr. Douglass, “an iconic figure in the whole development of the community down here.”
“He was a giant and a gentleman, and it is nearly impossible to overstate his influence on this neighborhood,” said Downtown Alliance President Jessica Lappin. “For more than 30 years, he championed Lower Manhattan’s growth and played a significant part in its recovery after the 9/11 attacks. As an advocate for businesses and residents, he has helped articulate a compelling vision for a Lower Manhattan for the 21st Century. Lower Manhattan simply would not be what it is today without him.”
The day after Mr. Douglass’s passing, when asked to sum up his life of service, Mr. Urstadt offered an epitaph for his friend by borrowing these words from Hamlet: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”