Interview: Paul Levy Gets Big Things Done

Center City District leader is on Philly Mag's list of powerful people.

No list of Philly’s most powerful people would be complete without Paul Levy. He has headed the Center City District since its inception in 1991, overseeing a transformation of the neighborhood from a dirty and dimly lit downtown, vacated after dark, to a vibrant center (natch) of commerce and living.

In April’s Power Issue of Philly Mag (pick it up on newsstands!) we say of Levy: “The president of the Center City District remains the undisputed king of city planning, with the Dilworth Plaza project, the Reading Viaduct, and his long-shot crusade to change the tax structure. Nobody will have a bigger influence on Center City this year. Again.”

Philly Mag spoke with Levy about Center City’s renaissance, what it takes to get big projects done in this town, and what the future holds for his organization.

First of all, let’s get an update. How’s the renovation of Dilworth Plaza going?

We’re on target for opening in early September.

What do you think it’s going to mean to the city, and to Center City in particular, to have that space transformed and usable?

Well the space, first of all, it’s going to take what has been traditionally William Penn’s fifth public square and return it to a status as a major park and civic gathering space. The design that was there since the ’70s was … very 1970s. Lots of granite, lots of walls, not very usable. And we’re gonna create a really green, open space with fountains, with a café that’s really going to draw people to the center of the city. It will link together the Convention Center and the Avenue of the Arts and the Parkway as a really great connecting space in the city. And it will provide a major amenity for office workers and for people who live or visit downtown.

You are on Philly Mag’s list of the city’s most powerful people. I think probably because we’re used to big projects getting bottled up in this town and you and your organization seem to find a way to get them accomplished. What’s the ratio of arm-twisting to back-scratching you have to employ to get those things done?

(Laughs) Look, I think we start with a fact that the CCD has a dedicated and independent funding base. There are lots of different needs and issues that city government has to wrestle with and has to balance. We have the advantage of having the downtown property owners and businesses’ supporting an agenda to improve the center of the city. We’ve got a board, we’re publicly approved, but we tend to try to move more like a private business in terms of the speed of decision-making and sort of driving things towards completion.

Is that what it takes then? Do you have to be more privately oriented to get things done?

No, no. I don’t think so. Because I think there are public agencies that get a lot of things done as well. We obviously operate with strong support in the business community, but a very close collaboration with city government. I mean, we’re co-located with the Philadelphia Police Department, so we work very closely with city government. We work very closely with different elected and appointed officials. But we’ve been created to get something done in Center City, to create an improved public environment. Maybe it’s because our focus is, by design, narrower it makes it easier for us to get more done.

Let me ask about that relationship with City Hall because when the organization started, as I understand the history, it was partly from a belief that City Hall was nearly powerless on its own to make the changes needed to save and revive the Center City neighborhood. Has that changed in the last generation and if so, how?

You know, I wouldn’t accept that as the starting point. I think about it this way: Center City accounts for about 44 percent of all jobs in the city. But at the time we started, only about 5 percent of the population and the electorate lived here. So, from an economic point of view, you would say “Gee, all the public money needs to be invested back here to improve the public environment.” From a perfectly natural, democratic point of view, only 5 percent of the voters were here.

So I think there was a recognition in 1990, both in government and in the private sector, that the city government in a constrained environment — given all the needs of the city — was not going to be able to invest at the level that Center City might need to stay competitive, not with other portions of the city, but with Boston, New York, Paris, Barcelona, etc. So the notion was you needed a dedicated funding stream, an organization focused on the business, the commercial, the cultural center of the city. And we were originally approved by city government and city government continues to approve the plans and budgets we put together after the property owners approve them. So I don’t think there was ever an adversarial relationship. I think there was simply a recognition in the business community: if we’re gonna want to get more done, we’re gonna have to find a way to pay for it ourselves.

Transforming Center City into a place that is livable: How much is that meant to the success of your project?

I think what’s changed is work in 1990, you sat in your office that was pre-internet, that was pre-email and you were very much tied to the telephone and there were no cell phones. Today you could work sitting outside in a park. You could be eating lunch and working in a different place. And so, improving the quality of the public environment has become equally important to make this a competitive place to work, a place to live and a place to visit. So investing in quality public spaces, I think, serves a series of objectives now.

Back in 1990, there was one condominium building in the downtown. That was the Academy House. Today, there are 50 of them. There are another 15-20,000 apartments in the downtown. And so, what had been a 9-5 downtown is now a place active and animated at nighttime, arts and culture are clearly part of that as well.

We started with a focus on the physical environment, just maintaining it and keeping it clean. As of the end of this year, we will have completed $125 million worth of public area improvements: lighting, landscaping, directional signs, four parks. We’re very much about an organization that physically gets things done that people can see, feel and touch, but all to create a great public environment.

Let’s look to the future, and I don’t mean for this to sound valedictory, but you have been transforming Center City for more than 20 years now. What do you think is the single most important accomplishment of that time?

I think there’s a layering of accomplishments. I think one is simply to have a dedicated management entity, so that my job or my successor’s job or everybody who works here gets up each day and says “How do we make this the best place in Philadelphia? How do we make this the best downtown?” So a dedicated organization focused on quality of place, I think, is the core mission of the organization, the core accomplishment to put something like that in place. I’m now working with my fourth mayor, will soon be working with the fifth. So it represents continuity.

I think in terms of physical improvements, I would say simply at the very beginning, if you read the stories in 1991, it was like a miracle that litter disappeared. It was actually quite simple to have dedicated revenue, but to gain a sense that the public environment was well-maintained, I think, was the big step. I think the second big investment, which we continue to do, was in nighttime lighting. While we do lots of other things, 2,200 light fixtures have double or tripled nighttime illumination, sort of have set the stage for a lot of really good investment that’s occurred. And then we’re in this sort of, if you will, third generation of improvements which starting with Cafe Cret and then little Collins Park on 1700 block and then Sister Cities park and now Dilworth Plaza to create diverse, mixed use public spaces for people of all ages. It just enhances the public amenity package in the downtown.

How will you know when you’re done? Is Dilworth the capper or what’s left to accomplish?

Well no. We’ve got, right behind it, we’re actively fundraising for the first phase of the Reading Viaduct. That’s the piece just north of Vine Street and that’s a very big project, but we’re looking at just an $8.6 million phase. And if all goes well, we could start construction on that next year just after we finish Dilworth. So, improving a downtown, you’re never done.

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