Lower Manhattan lost a tireless civic champion on Tuesday when Bill Bernstein, a senior executive at the Downtown Alliance, died at age 64. “He was one of the people who came back to Lower Manhattan on September 12, 2001,” said Community Board 1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes, recalling how Mr. Bernstein talked his way past security checkpoints on the day after the terrorist attacks that had laid waste to the community, so that he could begin to plan the process of rebuilding. As Lower Manhattan struggled to recover, Mr. Bernstein put together a program that supported more than 500 small businesses with a package of grants, wage subsidies, and low-interest loans.
Mr. Bernstein, who served three times as the Alliance’s acting president, and was the organization’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer at the time of his death, was called upon to repeat this process in 2012, after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, when he devised and implemented the Lower Manhattan: Back to Business Small Business Grant Program, which gave $1.5 million in financial assistance to more than 100 local firms, which were still struggling months after the flood waters had receded. “Bill was the architect of that program,” noted Michael Ketring, chair of CB1’s Financial District Committee.
When not grappling with cataclysms, Mr. Bernstein oversaw Downtown Alliance programs that have contributed enormously to Lower Manhattan’s rebirth and renaissance, such as the proliferation of dozens of acres of free Wi-Fi coverage throughout the area south of Chambers Street, and LaunchLM, a 2014 initiative that incubated Downtown’s technology and innovation sector by fostering collaboration and synergies between small firms.
“He was a problem-solver,” recalls Marco Pasanella, chair of CB1’s Seaport/Civic Center Committee. “He was a sage guy. A good guy. I’m going to miss him.”
Mr. Bernstein served at the Alliance for almost two decades, where often self-effacingly described his role as, “chief cook and bottle washer.” Before joining the Downtown Alliance, Mr. Bernstein was a senior executive at the City’s Department of City Planning. He was a graduate of Stuyvesant High School (in the years before it moved to Battery Park City), the City College of New York, and New York University’s School of Business.
“For Bill Bernstein, the Alliance was so much more than a job,” recalls Alliance president Jessica Lappin. “It was a personal and professional mission. His wisdom and generosity helped build this organization and helped shape Lower Manhattan. His impact was truly immeasurable, and we will miss him dearly.”
“Bill Bernstein was a terrific advocate through a lot of change,” reflects CB1 chair Catherine McVay Hughes. “It’s a terrible loss for our community.”