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?

There is a black-and-white still, shot by some anonymous photographer in February of 1948, that shows up in Levy’s PowerPoints over and over again. The photo depicts Market Street as you look west toward City Hall. Its sidewalks are utterly jammed with pedestrians in heavy overcoats and fedoras. There’s a street clock in the shot; its hands point to 2:20 p.m. This, on Market East on a random February afternoon.

The photo is a touchstone for Levy, a reminder that as far as Center City has come, it’s capable of much, much more. That’s easy to overlook on a lot of blocks on a lot of days in Center City. But look around even a little, and it soon becomes obvious that Center City still badly needs Levy’s care and affection—or, perhaps, something a bit stronger. As Levy says, “My simple way of putting it is that clean and safe is absolutely essential, but it’s not sufficient.”

In Levy’s mind, the Center City District’s evolution has been a natural, almost inevitable progression driven by that premise. First you lay the foundation, clean and safe. Then you market it. Then you make modest improvements to the streetscape: lights, planters, signage and so on. Then you dabble in some small-scale development work, like the cafe on the southeastern tip of the Parkway. Then the projects get bigger: Aviator Park in Logan Square, Dilworth Plaza, the viaduct.

All that helps—a lot. But it doesn’t solve the core problems: a tax structure that makes job growth difficult, a school system that drives middle- and upper-middle-class parents to the ’burbs, a transit infrastructure that’s being starved of funding. “There are clear limits to what an organization like ours can do with its own resources and its own energy,” Levy says.

Except that he doesn’t appear to accept those limits, particularly when it comes to tax policy. A school of powerful business interests, academics and hard-to-classify activists such as Levy has become completely convinced over the years that Philadelphia’s recovery is hobbled and perhaps capped by the city’s tax structure. The problem, they argue, isn’t so much that taxes are too high (though that’s true), but rather that the city is heavily taxing the wrong things, namely business and wages. That spooks employers, which in turn leaves Philadelphia bereft of jobs, which hurts both downtown interests and the tax base.

They make a compelling argument. But their solution—to shift much of the tax burden off businesses and wage earners and onto property owners in the form of higher real estate taxes—is politically toxic. Levy has been singing loudly from this hymnal for years, and persuasive as he is, he’s found few if any converts in City Council. “I consider Paul Levy a friend. You could arguably say he’s one of the most powerful unelected officials in the City of Philadelphia,” says City Council president Darrell L. Clarke, who could well be the next mayor. But when I run Levy’s tax advocacy past him, Clarke says, “This is America, he can take a position, but when you happen to represent the most affluent section of town like he does, I don’t think his opinion is maybe as balanced as it should be.”

Levy doesn’t wade into political fights readily. He has scrupulously avoided ever donating a dime to any local political candidate. He never endorses one candidate over another, and he largely refrains—though with great difficulty—from critiquing public figures. But on the matter of taxes, Levy’s usual restraint is altogether missing. He goes after the issue with the fervor of a man accustomed to success whose progress is being hindered by policy outside his control. I ask him: What would Center City look like with the tax structure he advocates? “Fifty thousand to 100,000 new jobs. Instead of residential conversions, we’d have office buildings. Instead of vacant lots, we’d have new residential towers. Those Basciano blocks on Market would be built out. We’d have office tenants on the east side of town. Higher-paying jobs. A better tax base.”

In all the ways that matter—swaying the public, creating meaningful political pressure—these arguments have so far utterly failed. Which is worth remembering the next time you hear someone say that Levy should run for mayor.

He would almost surely lose. Badly. And he seems to realize this. Unlike the mayor, Levy presides over a small swath of the city that just happens to feature huge concentrations of the highest-value real estate in Philadelphia. Which means he has considerable resources to work with—$20 million in 2013—and limited ground to cover. “My job is much simpler than the mayor’s,” he says. “I don’t have to allocate insufficient resources against competing needs. I care about crime, but I don’t pay for incarceration. I care about education, but I don’t have to pay for the schools. If you asked us to solve all these problems, we would be looking pretty bad, right?”

Levy isn’t being mentioned all that prominently for the looming 2015 race—at least, not as a mayoral candidate. Allan Domb, the realtor, has been suggesting that Levy would make an ideal managing director—the operational chief of city government—particularly if Ed Rendell opts to run for a third term as mayor.

If Rendell were to run, hypothetically, he would be on board with Levy as a number two. “He’s a very creative guy, and he’s relentless; he doesn’t take no for an answer,” Rendell says. But he doubts Levy would take a city job, if only because of the pay cut. Levy makes $356,000 a year. “I’m not sure government can afford him,” Rendell says.