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?

One way to understand much of Levy’s work over the past 10 years—and his plans for the future—is to think of it as an ongoing correction of Edmund Bacon’s mistakes. For all that the titanic architect and urban planner accomplished, time has pretty clearly proven that many of his works were badly misguided, tearing huge holes in the fabric of Philadelphia’s core.

Levy was schooled in Bacon’s immense impact almost immediately after he arrived in Philadelphia. One of Levy’s projects in those days was an oral history of Queen Village, whose residents were reeling from the Bacon-backed construction of Interstate 95 along the waterfront. “He was godlike,” the residents told Levy. “He patted us on the head as if to say, ‘Yes, my children’—then sent us on our way, and proceeded with the demolition.”

Necessary as it may have been at the time, Bacon’s urban clear-cutting created some of the most stubborn and barren sections of modern Philadelphia, from the waterfront, to Market East, to the lower Ben Franklin Parkway, to Penn Center and the bleak plazas of the municipal complex.

Levy cycles through a few images of these sites—another PowerPoint session, another day—and tells me, “The more density, the more walkability, the more energy, then the more opportunity, the more jobs; that’s my starting point for what a successful city is.” This isn’t revolutionary thinking by any stretch. But Levy’s point is that Philadelphia, with its narrow streets, a commercial downtown crushed up against dense residential neighborhoods, and phenomenal transit infrastructure, is perfectly positioned to thrive in the years to come: “What made us obsolete in the ’60s and ’70s is a huge competitive strength today.”

Another slide: a photo of inhospitable Penn Center Plaza, the Bacon creation between JFK Boulevard and Market. “So if walkability and density is our core strength, then these gaps in the fabric are the problem.”

Fixing those spaces, Levy says, “has been the frame for everything we’ve done for the last 10 years.” The strategy has many prongs. Events and programming lure people to otherwise dead urban spaces. Research and marketing—geared not so much to the public, but to prospective tenants—tout the business opportunities that await retailers brave enough to invest in places like the Market East corridor. Most ambitious is the physical mending of those holes in the urban fabric: the very nearly perfect Sister Cities Park, a softened Dilworth Plaza, the viaduct and more.

Most of this unfolded after Bacon retired. But Bacon seemed to recognize in Levy a threat to his vision for Philadelphia. In 1999, Levy and the Center City District took their first ambitious stab at city planning, calling for the extensive urbanization of the Parkway, with apartment towers, restaurants and dramatically narrowed roadways. Bacon publicly savaged the plan, a moment that Levy recalled six years later, in an op-ed mourning the great planner’s death. “Bacon dared to dream big about cities when cities were in decline,” Levy wrote. “We can quarrel with design details, not with the breadth and success of his vision.”

This was a gracious acknowledgement, and an accurate one. Levy’s work has come at a time when the viability of cities like Philadelphia is growing, not waning. Dreaming big about Philadelphia hasn’t been quite as big a dare for Levy as it was for Bacon.