Center City Had “Swirling Tornadoes of Litter, Dirt and Plastic Bags”

CCD's Paul Levy on the past and the future of Philadelphia. (PLUS: Win free tickets to Philly Mag's ThinkFest, where he'll speak about what's next for the city. )

For more than two decades, Paul Levy has presided over the Center City District, a private-sector-sponsored organization that has tried to keep Center City “clean, safe and attractive, an easy place to get around and a great place to do business, visit or live” since the group’s founding in 1991. Levy will be talking about “What’s Next for Center City” at Philly Mag’s ThinkFest event on December 1st, and I caught up with him to get a preview about where he thinks Philadelphia’s headed.

Twenty-five percent of Center City’s current residents weren’t alive when the CCD got its start. What was it like back in those days?
There was a very successful real estate boom of the ’80s that was happening at the same time as the federal government under Reagan was disengaging from cities. So just as the city was creating a new, modern office district, Philadelphia was going through a major municipal financial crisis. There were swirling tornadoes of litter, dirt and plastic bags. Most buildings were covered with graffiti. People went home at 5:30 p.m. The core of the downtown market closed up. And there was a perception that it was just not safe. I came up with the phrase “pride of avoidance” to describe two suburbanites who meet at a mall. The one says, “I haven’t been downtown in five years.” The other says, “That’s nothing. I haven’t been in 10.” We weren’t just economically depressed as a city. We were clinically depressed.

What have been the biggest successes?
Number one: Getting out there on the street with the highly visible uniformed group of individuals. And it was as if magically litter went away. Before then, there was no one whose job it was to be out there seven days a week cleaning up litter. We now had all these new people on the streets, and that had a major psychological impact and started restoring confidence. The second thing, and we’re still working on it, is nighttime illumination. We’ve doubled or tripled nighttime illumination in some areas. It’s something you take for granted until you get to the edge of the district. But this helped set this stage for what really then flourished: the evening economy: arts, hotels, restaurants. And third, most recently, the delightful experience with the Sister Cities on the Parkway. We took a derelict and forgotten piece of the Parkway and created a grand cafe, a great public space, and a playground. It’s a great space.

Similar to what’s happening over at City Hall’s Dilworth Plaza.
That was completed in 1977 when the city seemed to have surplus granite. Everything there is a hard surface. And the underground is not a very safe place. We’re creating a new gateway to public transit with great entrances, a large green lawn, a huge outdoor public fountain with a great piece of public art, a wonderful cafe that will look out onto the Ben Franklin Parkway and Art Museum, and quiet sitting areas under treas. We’ll be completed in the Spring of 2014.

So why are some parts of Chestnut and Sansom still so run down?
Center City is an unfinished project. We have more city than we can make good, active use of. A lot of revival has occurred but not like with 13th Street. We’ve come a long way, but we’re by no means finished. The next step is that we need to get a competitive tax structure for the city. We’ve got good demographic trends, good energy trends, and people who are interested in authentic city living, but the taxes are depressing for real estate and business.

What’s Center City going to look like in 2020?
There will be continued growth of residential towers throughout downtown. Today, it’s apartments. Soon, condos will return. The boundaries of Center City from a residential point of view will continue to expand. There will be several more office buildings. Market East will finally become a destination retail-entertainment zone. The great work that John Fry is doing at Drexel will cross the river, and you’ll have a seamless connection between University City and Center City. And maybe someone will figure out the waterfront … maybe.

Want to be part of the conversation about what’s next for Philadelphia at Philadelphia magazine’s ThinkFest? Here’s your chance to win two free tickets with your brilliant “future Philadelphia” concept. Have the solution to the great I-95 puzzle? The perfect way to fill Market Street’s “Disney hole”? Share in the comments below. Be smart. Be creative. Be futuristic. We’ll choose at random from all comments (one idea = one comment = one entry; comment as much as you’d like) left by noon on Tuesday, November 20th, and be in touch with the winner via email.