Lydia Kulina-Washburn’s recent commentary on the West Walnut Street retail scene offers many good observations about a street in recovery. But when trying to explain the dynamics of change, she reverses cause and effect, blaming diminished foot traffic on the lack of interesting stores, when in reality, retail is missing because of the absence of people.
On a good summer day in 2019 there were about 450,000 pedestrians in Center City. In July 2021, there were 285,700. About 45,000 of the 60,000 residents who live in the core of downtown are out and about, walking their dogs, running errands and shopping. Tourists and regional shoppers, missing for months, are slowly returning.
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But so far, we’ve hosted just one convention. In 2019 there were 20-plus major events at the Convention Center that attracted 1.2 million visitors with money in their pockets. About 100,000 of 150,000 office employees have been working from home for the last 16 to 17 months. Many college students remained with their parents, attending classes remotely. Theaters have been closed. The street suffered major damage during the civil unrest in May 2020. Across the country, the retail industry has been in a process of continual change, accelerated by the pandemic
Still, Walnut Street retains its diversity. Yes, there are now 10 banks between Broad and 19th streets. But there are also 53 retail shops, 31 service providers and 13 restaurants or cafes. Center City’s strong residential population kept the local retail industry afloat, along with federal aid that provided relief during the pandemic. Developers still believe in downtown living: at either end of the corridor, The Laurel and Arthaus are topping out, just 360 of 1,000 new residential units under construction in Center City west.
We were making great progress toward reopening, when the Delta variant, spreading among the unvaccinated, slowed down the return to work.
Even with business closures, 78 retailers and restaurants opened in Center City in 2020 and 2021. Allbirds, an online sustainable shoe retailer, opened its first Philadelphia brick-and-mortar location last year. Equinox, a fitness club, will also open its first Philadelphia location at The Laurel in 2022. Four existing Walnut Street retailers, Dr. Martens, Rescue Spa, Tiffany & Co, and Govberg Jewelers, are re-opening on Walnut Street at new locations. The Philadelphia Runner, closed during the majority of 2020, just returned with a new and larger Walnut Street storefront. These businesses and more than 20 additional retailers that plan to open downtown in 2021 believe in our future.
Walnut Street’s strength has always been its strategic location between the densest residential section of Center City and downtown’s primary office district, anchored by Rittenhouse Square and an extraordinary concentration of restaurants with outdoor seating. On 18th Street alone, 12 restaurants have provided 622 seats in closed portions of the street.
We were making great progress toward reopening, when the Delta variant, spreading among the unvaccinated, slowed down the return to work. With renewed efforts to persuade the reluctant, and with more employers beginning to mandate vaccines, we can reactivate all the diverse sources of downtown retail demand, restoring vitality and jobs throughout Philadelphia.
Pretty soon, even the dogs will be complaining that Walnut Street is getting crowded. You can bank on that.
Paul R. Levy is the president of the Center City District.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.Header photo courtesy of Visit Philly