At the annual meeting of RiverCenter on Monday night, Ingeborg Perndorfer of The Language School passed around photos of downtown planters spilling over with colorful flowers. Architect Stephen Raciti emceed a series of awards for downtown building improvements.


And departing Mayor Ed McKenna, beginning a farewell tour after 16 years in the job, collected a plaque that named him this year’s ‘Red Bank Ambassador’ for his role in the creation of the downtown Special Improvement District in 1989 and of RiverCenter, which manages the district, two years later.

Before there were flower pots and award-winning facades, the downtown had the appearance of ghost town, with high vacancies rates at street level and nearly 100-percent vacancies in offices on second floors and higher.

The commercial district’s turnaround began when McKenna, real estate investor Jay Herman and former Merrill Lynch executive Larry Robinson met and “talked about this crummy corner, Linden Place and Broad Street,” McKenna told the gathering of about 70 people at Riverview Medical Center’s Blaisdell Auditorium.

The corner was dominated by an eyesore building—the former Lerner Shops store. Merrill Lynch ended up building a 16,000-square-foot brokerage building with underground parking on the site.

Today, McKenna said, RiverCenter is widely regarded as “perhaps the best example in the state of a special improvement district.

“You should know how much RiverCenter means to me,” McKenna said. “Of all the awards I might get, this plaque I’ll actually keep, and hang someplace important.”

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