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Guest Commentary: How Can Center City Achieve Total Recovery?

Despite what you’ve heard, downtown Philly is doing pretty well. Center City District’s President/CEO on how the city is rebounding from the last three years — and what new leaders must do

Guest Commentary: How Can Center City Achieve Total Recovery?

Despite what you’ve heard, downtown Philly is doing pretty well. Center City District’s President/CEO on how the city is rebounding from the last three years — and what new leaders must do

At the start of spring, Center City had restored 77 percent of its 2019 pedestrian volumes (a daily average of 345,144), more than triple the 113,600 pedestrians in April, 2020. Despite end-of-the-world stories written during the bleakest months of 2020 and 2021, there were 35 percent more residents living in the core of downtown in March, 2023 than in March, 2019, as more people choose to live here. Visitors, tourists and shoppers were at 76 percent of 2019 levels (but at 92 percent on weekends) with workers at 64 percent. West Market office district workers still lag, but returned to 50 percent of 2019 levels at the end of March, 2023.

It’s misleading to use pandemic as an umbrella term for the events of the last three years. We confronted three separate challenges: a global health crisis; mandated shutdowns of different durations across the country; and, in some cities, civil unrest and vandalism, followed by a rise in crime.

How Philadelphia rebounds from those setbacks is defined by our urban DNA, fashioned by 30 years of diversification of Center City’s economy and land use and framed by our inherited, pre-auto built form. But this place that holds 42 percent of all city jobs is not the passive result of immutable trends. It will be shaped by the actions or inaction of business, civic and political leaders.

Downtown diversification

Start with diverse land-use: Center City has added a large inventory of housing of all types, intermixed with offices, health care and education institutions, a robust convention and tourism business and a vibrant arts and cultural scene. The more diverse the land-use, the more doors opening to the street, the more vibrant the sidewalks more hours per day, the safer the feel. It’s why West Walnut is rebounding faster than East and West Market.

Many problems unresolved at the start of 2020 await a new mayor in 2024.

Since 1997, while adding new office towers, Philadelphia also became a national leader, converting more than 40 downtown buildings to housing or hotels, filling in surface lots, creating the third largest downtown residential population in the U.S. The strategic decision in the late 1980s that put conventions in the center, not at the margins, mingled with historic and cultural attractions, gives us one of the most walkable and compact destinations in North America, accented by quality public spaces and thriving outdoor cafes. We should sustain the pattern of adding new offices while converting the old. But predictions of an “urban doom loop” are no more than idle musings of a few academics so remote, they’re disconnected from reality.

Slow growth

There are benefits to being a tortoise. Our business mix is not highly dependent on technology or financial services, sectors that grew rapidly after 2000, but now are slowest in returning to office. Unlike Seattle and San Francisco, we benefit from Comcast’s decision to maximize days in office. Nonetheless, Philadelphia must capture more of the growth industries of the 21st century.

Nationally, the longer the 2019 commute, the less who return downtown in 2023. Fortunately, a large share of our workforce walks, bikes or takes short transit rides, while those who drive avoid the frustrating journeys endured in many regions.

Public safety

Perceptions of safety remain a hurdle. But like pandemic, it’s a term overloaded with complex content. Gun violence is a major crisis. While limited to a number of distressed neighborhoods, media coverage makes it omnipresent. Fear is easily triggered by a handful of serious, though isolated events downtown. It’s reinforced by an upsurge in lower level offenses, like retail theft, and other signs of social disorder, especially on sidewalks and transit corridors with diminished volumes. CCD surveys have found for years that signs of disorder also disturb those over 55 more than those under 35.

Successful cities are re-animating their downtowns with events and programming, while proactively addressing safety and quality-of-life challenges with a two-handed approach, blending community policing with services for the distressed who dwell on sidewalks. They take low-level offenses seriously but focus on restorative justice, reconnecting those in need with job opportunities.

In 2021 and 2022, support from businesses enabled CCD significantly to enhance uniformed, unarmed public safety deployment: supplementing our long-term Community Service Representative foot patrol with a high-visibility bicycle unit, operating seven days a week. Customer-oriented and committed to problem solving, CCD personnel provide reassurance to the public. Co-location with a Philadelphia police station, interconnected communication, and the use of real-time, crime mapping enables rapid resolution of emerging challenges.

CCD expanded to three teams the Ambassadors of Hope homeless outreach partnership with Project Home and crisis intervention-trained police officers, resulting in a 29 percent reduction in unhoused individuals on sidewalks in Center City since 2018 without a single arrest or citation.

Collaboration is not limited to downtown. It is as effective as responding to gun violence in neighborhoods. Philadelphia’s Group Violence Intervention (GVI) initiative partners police and prosecutors, social services and job training with community leaders, local clergy and those with special credibility: mothers of young men who were killed and peers returning from prison. The next mayor must ramp up focused deterrence in more neighborhoods, while taking more seriously the drug crisis in Kensington.

Even with constrained resources, cross-department collaboration yields dividends. CCD hosts routine coordination meetings of city, state, federal and transit law enforcement professionals assigned downtown with private security retained by offices, retailers and health-care campuses. The result: a 10.6 percent drop in serious crime within CCD boundaries in 2022 compared to 2019.

Animating downtown

Just as our 110 sidewalk cleaners are a reassuring presence, even without an explicit security function, tending to the streetscape has a beneficial, subliminal function, as litter and graffiti are continuously removed. CCD also enlivens its parks with year-round events and amenities; plants thousands of flower bulbs and prunes dozens of trees; maintains and upgrades sidewalk lighting; and is enhancing Walnut Street and the office district with landscape improvements. There are obvious lessons for the next mayor who can support the work of smaller improvement districts across our neighborhoods.

CCD Restaurant Week continued without interruption for the last three years and the Sips promotion returned in 2022. We’re promoting retail and cultural institutions through advertising and social media. In 2023, we are adding new ways to support businesses as they encourage their workers to return to office.

Center City FYI: CCD is partnering with major building owners, transit agencies and public safety professionals to engage workers directly at lunchtime in building lobbies. The initiative continues through May, providing face-to-face conversations and information about transit incentives, public safety and amenities downtown.

Dinner and a Show: CCD has joined with several major performing arts organizations to offer exclusive discounts on tickets to music, dance and theater performances through May 31.

Center City Social: In late spring and early summer, we will be collaborating with more office buildings to bring the athletic, cultural and dance events that CCD programs in Dilworth Park to office plazas at day’s end, enhancing the spaces that surround places of work.

Live @ Lunch: Our popular lunchtime concert series in Dilworth Park is also going on the road this summer. On Wednesdays at noon, from June 14 to July 5, Live @ Lunch will pop up on various Center City office plazas.

The overarching message from all these initiatives: Come back to the center of it all. The more high-skilled workers return, the more opportunities at all skill levels.

What’s required from leadership

Many problems unresolved at the start of 2020 await a new mayor in 2024. In the expanding national economy, following the severe 2008 recession, Philadelphia’s growth was slow, 27th of the 30 largest cities, generating insufficient transit-accessible jobs to elevate a low rate of workforce participation and reduce the high level of poverty.

Philadelphia has extraordinary assets, amenities and advantages, as highlighted in this year’s State of Center City report. But only committed, proactive private and public leadership will enable the city to realize its full potential.

High wage and business taxes levied on both gross receipts and net income — like no other major American city nor surrounding county — create disincentives to locate here. This is exacerbated by new options for remote and hybrid work. Employers have a major role, making the case that innovation, productivity and mentoring are achieved best through in-person collaboration.

Philadelphia’s economy was strong in local-serving, lower-paying sectors, but deficient in “traded sector” employment, particularly high-wage industries such as professional services, finance and pharmaceuticals that could locate here, while reaching customers both national and global. These industries currently are more dispersed across our region than in comparable places. Their absence downtown means fewer of the moderate- and lower-wage jobs that revolve around, and are supported by, traded sector industries in other cities. Only three of the top 15 employers in Philadelphia are for-profit businesses.

Our strength in education, health care and emerging life sciences is very encouraging, but not yet a significant contributor to a real estate tax base robust enough to support public schools. The next mayor should build on recent momentum around tax reform and foster growth of the full range of jobs and industries across the city.

New leadership can rejuvenate public safety strategies that residents and businesses across the city are demanding. It’s a false choice to juxtapose policing and social services. Well-trained, community-based policing goes hand-in-hand with education, job training and social services to address neighborhood challenges and prepare residents for 21st century jobs. Fundamentally, we need more robust business and employment growth.

Philadelphia has extraordinary assets, amenities and advantages, as highlighted in this year’s State of Center City report. But only committed, proactive private and public leadership will enable the city to realize its full potential. It’s time to stop saying and start doing this.

Paul R. Levy is President & CEO of Center City District. The full State of Center City report will be released on Wednesday on CCD’s website.

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

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