Philadelphia's downtown finds new life

City Center's apartments, restaurants and hotels prospering

April 16, 2001|By Linda K. Harris | Linda K. Harris,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - It was only a decade ago that Center City wore the image of a loser - a dirty, dangerous, has-been metropolis with an inferiority complex deeper than the Delaware River.

Even the city's most ardent boosters, such people as Ronald I. Rubin, who in 1991 had just finished building the 54-story Mellon Bank Center, wince at the memory.

"The city," Rubin recalled with deliberate understatement, "was not fabulous."

Added Michael Dean, a lawyer who helped usher in the Center City District: "There was a general feeling that no one was in charge of Center City."

But Philadelphians had no intention of letting their city wallow on a steam grate. They set out to transform Center City by tackling the basics of urban self-esteem. Placing boundaries roughly from Sixth to 23rd streets and from Locust to Race, they kept the goals deceptively simple: Make Center City - the core of Philadelphia where more than 300,000 people work and 78,000 people live - clean and safe.

Now, as the Center City District celebrates its 10th anniversary, parts of Center City's population have grown 14 percent. With a 97 percent occupancy rate, apartments are almost impossible to find.

Median housing prices have increased 20 percent in the Rittenhouse Square area and as much as 40 percent in other parts of the district. Restaurant Row, showcasing some of the city's 75 new restaurants, offers a swanky assortment of cuisine. A dozen new hotels have almost doubled the number of rooms available downtown.

Giving credit

To be sure, the national economy boomed throughout the 1990s, a new Convention Center opened in 1993, and Philadelphia elected a gregarious mayor named Edward G. Rendell, who could sell steak to a vegan.

But at least some of the credit for Philadelphia's renaissance is directly traceable to the Center City District, a quasi-government organization with the ability to raise money by issuing bonds.

With a budget that grew from just over $6 million to just under $12 million in 10 years and a $20 million bond issue for streetscape improvements, the Center City District has cleaned up the sidewalks and the graffiti, installed pedestrian-friendly signs for walkers, added lighting and trees, and helped business owners improve their facades.

The Center City District's improvements have inspired others to imitate. City leaders from more than two dozen American cities and 18 foreign countries have flocked to Philadelphia to note the downtown's renewal and to talk to Paul R. Levy, the Center City District's executive director, the person whom many credit with the district's glowing success.

Clean and safe

On March 20, 1991, a brigade of 100 Center City District staffers in spiffy aqua-and-navy uniforms hit the downtown sidewalks. Some toted brooms and dustpans. Others, known as community-service representatives, used walkie-talkies as they kept an eye on block after block.

Moses Pierce, who recently received a 10-year service pin for his work as a representative, was uniformed and on the street that first day.

Pierce said that most of the time sidewalk representatives simply give directions to City Hall, the Liberty Bell or where to buy a cheesesteak.

But "if someone falls or someone trips, we're the first responder. In the first minute or so, we determine who to call."

Like all community-service representatives, Pierce received training from the Philadelphia Police Department. The relationship forged between the Center City District and the police is unique among business-improvement districts. A police substation and the Center City District share offices on Filbert Street. Each morning the community-service agents answer roll call with the police officers.

The result has been a dramatic drop in crime. Serious crimes such as robbery and assault have declined by one-third since 1995. Window-smashing theft from cars, a prevalent nuisance at the turn of the 1990s, has dropped 76 percent in the district.

An ambitious lighting program and the planting of 400 trees have helped, too. The tall, curved street lights that provided dim illumination for people on the street were replaced by more than 1,000 pedestrian-scale lampposts, roughly doubling the amount of light along sidewalks.

"This is the second-most important thing we have done in 10 years," Levy said. "This has created the environment where people feel safe at night."

In 1994, just three years after the district's inception, the 2,100 property owners in the district - who paid the 5 percent property surtax that funded it - voted, along with the city, to reauthorize the Center City District for 20 years. A $20 million bond issue was floated for streetscape improvements.

That year, 10 new coffeehouses and 24 new restaurants, including Restaurant Row stalwarts Striped Bass, Circa and Passage to India, opened on Walnut Street.

Stubborn challenge

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