In March 1991, the Center City District (CCD) set out to revive Philadelphia’s downtown, which was widely perceived as dirty, dangerous and dull. The goal of this private-sector sponsored business improvement district (BID) was to accomplish nothing less than a re-creation of Center City, to transform an intimate-scaled, walkable, 17th-century street grid into a vibrant 24-hour, 21st century city – attractive to businesses, residents, shoppers and tourists. At the top of the list was restoring the basics: making Center City clean and safe.
Philadelphia was just one of many U.S. cities that in the early 1990s was losing market share to its suburbs, while local government lacked the resources to compete with the promise of suburban malls, landscaped office parks and car-dependent communities.
Now, in 2011, Center City Philadelphia is an international model for animating and enhancing a downtown, with probably the largest budget, at $18.7 million, of all global BIDs. In addition, the CCD has completed $56 million in capital and streetscape improvements and is about to start construction on another $54 million in public space and park improvements.
The 1,000 business improvement districts in the United States and another 400 in Canada, with BIDs now formed or forming in Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, United Kingdom and South Africa, often look to Philadelphia for guidance in accomplishing a coveted turn-around toward a more positive image and growth. In the last 20 years, the CCD has hosted visitors or presented to business groups in 32 North American cities and two dozen European, Asian and South American cities.
The reasons are plentiful. Major crimes in Center City have been cut in half. The most prevalent quality-of-life crime, theft-from-auto, has been reduced by 75%. Center City’s residential population has grown to the third-largest downtown in the United States, behind only New York and Chicago. Similarly, a dense cluster of 264,000 downtown jobs, supported by an integrated regional transit system makes Center City the third-largest downtown in terms of jobs, again behind only New York and Chicago, with office occupancy rates outperforming surrounding suburbs. Philadelphia’s Convention Center has doubled in size and opened this month, the same month the CCD turns 20.
Under the continuous leadership of President and CEO Paul R. Levy, the CCD has pursued innovative paths toward a better city. Initiatives such as “Turning on the Lights Upstairs” encouraged building owners to renovate and rent vacant upper floors. It led to passage of a citywide 10-year tax abatement. “Make It a Night” galvanized shopping and dining with free parking and later hours. The CCD helped building owners update their properties with a “Façade Improvement Matching Grants” program. It offered a “Campaign for Real Change” to help tackle the homeless problem.
The CCD installed more than 2,000 pedestrian-level streetlights. It displayed banners across the city, heralding cultural and recreational events and the city’s many treasures. It coordinated the installation of coordinated, color-changing LED fixtures on historic buildings along the Avenue of the Arts and illuminated the iconic sculptures and facades of cultural institutions along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Bright, lollipop-shaped signs mark transit stops. Easy-to-read maps conveniently orient visitors. The CCD has planted 1,000 trees and cares for 750 that are already in place.
To help keep people informed about life in Center City, the CCD added information to its website about schools, shopping and restaurants.
The CCD has accomplished all of this without ever losing sight of its original and basic mission of keeping the downtown clean and safe.
The International Downtown Association, the City of Philadelphia and others have bestowed numerous honors on the Center City District and its leadership in recognition of its myriad successes.
Today the CCD has increased the scale of its improvement. With a federal TIGER grant, state and foundation support, it is carrying out the $50 million renovation of Dilworth Plaza next to City Hall in the heart of downtown. It has refurbished a small, pocket park, Chestnut Park. It is revitalizing Sister Cities Park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It is providing ever more information on its website.
The Center City District, a private-sector sponsored business improvement district dedicated to making Center City Philadelphia clean, safe and attractive, is committed to maintaining Center City’s competitive edge as a regional employment center, a quality place to live, and a premier regional destination for dining, shopping and cultural attractions.
Linda K. Harris, Director of Communications