How Paul Levy Created Center City

Philadelphia's vibrant downtown is due, in large part, to the vision of one man. So why is Center City District's Paul Levy still not satisfied?

What makes Levy and his Center City District so capable? Ask around, and you hear that he’s an able manager, with a relentlessness and impatience that are rare in Philadelphia’s go-slow public life. You hear that he’s a shrewd political animal, adept at sharing credit while simultaneously ensuring that the Center City District gets its due. Others will tell you he’s effective largely because he lacks the parochialism of so many Philadelphia leaders. He travels constantly, and benchmarks Center City against dynamic downtowns around the world. Just as critically, with nearly three decades on the job, Levy brings continuity and a prodigious institutional memory to the tables where decisions are made.

All of that seems true and important, but incomplete.

Any accounting of Levy’s abilities has to include his mastery of PowerPoint—and yes, I realize just how ridiculous that sounds. PowerPoint is a punch line, a piece of bloated code sucking the life out of corporate America and putting audiences everywhere to sleep. But not when Levy has the clicker.

Each of his briefings resembles a mini TED talk, weaving together research, macro-trends, local history, anecdote, and an infectious pitch for whatever Center City District’s cause is that week. One September morning last year, I attended one of Levy’s periodic press briefings, this one on the jobs landscape in Philadelphia. It was riveting.

That night, I transcribed the hour-long session—all 9,101 words of it—not for any particular story or deadline, but just to keep it on file as a masterful analysis of the economic opportunities and challenges facing the city. My reaction isn’t all that unusual.

For a select but highly influential audience, Levy has become Philadelphia’s master narrator, telling the city’s big-picture stories—economics, history, growth, place—in a way that inspires, frightens and, above all, motivates. “This isn’t a formal proposal,” he tells me one day in the CCD’s conference room, loading up the latest slides, which are gauzy renderings of the concrete dead zones that surround Dilworth Plaza. “I have no money to pay for this, mind you, I’m just advancing a set of ideas.”

And it works. When Levy weaves his tale about Philadelphia’s promise and pitfalls and segues into his pitch on how this project or that project can advance the ball, pocketbooks open, bureaucratic barriers fall away, and journalists like myself aid and abet his cause. He’s that good.

What Levy doesn’t do nearly as well is put the clicker down from time to time and listen to what other people have to say. He has little patience for the public at large, and he doesn’t hide frustration well. Put him on a panel and he’ll roll his eyes at what he deems to be a stupid question. “He is of the Robert Moses school—top-down, get it done, and he’s very good at that. But he has left some bodies along the way,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, the applied-research arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. (Full disclosure: I also write for PlanPhilly, which is affiliated with PennPraxis.)

The Praxis approach to urban design is almost diametrically opposed to Levy’s. Praxis considers process paramount, and contends that community engagement is essential to create “a constituency for change.” The best example of this is the Praxis-led, community-forged plan for the Delaware waterfront, widely hailed as a fantastic template but one that so far hasn’t yielded a lot of actual work on the ground. “PennPraxis has no mission in actually getting things done,” says Levy. “They are fulfilling their core mission, which is civic engagement, participation, and I have enormous respect for that. I’m in a somewhat different business. I’m in the business of getting things done.”

Consider the Reading Viaduct on the northern edge of Center City. Forward-thinking activists have spent a decade advocating for a park atop the abandoned elevated rail line. In 2004, PennPraxis hosted a design competition to generate ideas and interest in the park. But the project went nowhere—until Paul Levy saw High Line Park in New York, and wanted to build something similar for Philadelphia. “Advocacy is one thing. Getting the nuts and bolts together is a different thing. Paul, he knew exactly where the levers were,” says John Struble, a founding member of the Reading Viaduct Project.

Only one lever didn’t work quite as expected. Since most of the viaduct lies outside the Center City District’s boundaries, Levy proposed a new neighborhood improvement district, to raise funds and manage the park. But the residents rebelled. Levy—who has never been trusted in Chinatown, given his support for a downtown ballpark in the early 2000s—hadn’t created a constituency for change. The NID was voted down.

Levy didn’t walk away. He had started to think of the viaduct not just as a potential park, but as a blighting tourniquet cutting off Center City’s northern growth. “You look at a map, and Center City is racing south, up the Parkway, off to Northern Liberties, but there’s this huge hole in the doughnut,” he says. “You’ve got these great old empty buildings—if they were in Old City, they would have been lofts and condos 20 years ago.”

After the NID was defeated, retiring City Councilman Frank DiCicco threw some money at the project, while Levy began shaking loose cash from foundations and other donors. He needs to raise $8.5 million by July 1st in order to get construction started next year, NID or no NID.

The charge of elitism, of bulldozing public opinion, is a recurring one for Levy. Business improvement districts like his are often attacked for deepening the divide between urban haves and have-nots. Those neighborhoods with the means to pay a bit extra to get sidewalk cleaning, lighting, lovely parks and constant programming. Those that can’t afford it get only the ever-diminishing services provided by City Hall.

Levy has no patience for this line of criticism. “So if all the houses on the block look like crap, should I not paint my house and fix it up?” he asks. That’s more than a little flip, but there’s no doubt Center City’s growth and prosperity work to the benefit of the entire city, juicing the tax base and creating a more inviting environment for employers.

In Levy’s mind, Center City shouldn’t be compared with Roxborough or Mayfair, but with downtown Boston, Manhattan and D.C. And by those yardsticks—and others—Philadelphia is still well behind.