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The Philadelphia Story

Philadelphia has revitalized in ways that would make make most American cities envious.

Rents are still fairly cheap compared to Chicago and New York but the downtown is bustling. Day and night, the "center city" district enjoys workers, shoppers, visitors and partiers. Suburbanites from rural areas and from out-of-state are moving downtown, significantly increasing the residential population over the last decade with childless couples, young people and students providing a large percentage of the growth.

Yet  as recent as 16 years ago, there wasn't a single outdoor café in downtown Philadelphia. Then in  1990 business owners, tenants, employers and city officials got together and started a downtown Business Improvement District. Since then, the downtown has witnessed mad growth.  

The 120-block district formed when city business owners agreed to create a special taxing district; extra taxes would be levied on businesses in the area to clean up graffiti,  beautify streets and sidewalks with seven-day-a-week uniformed service, enhance landscaping and lighting, and increase police protection in the area.

Now, the 3-square-mile area of the 100-square mile city is Philadelphia's economic engine, Levy says. The center city tax on more than 2,000 businesses raises $14 million a year for such amenities as community service representatives with radios to notify police of problems.

"Little changes in the environment can create big psychological changes in how people think of downtown," says Paul Levy, president of Philadelphia’s business improvement area dubbed the Center City District.  

Philly's BID success includes such markers:

• Since 2001, there's been a 171 percent increase in outdoor eateries in the "center city" district, to 187 today.
• Since 1997, when a 10-year tax break was offered on residential development, center city reports more than 8,300 new residential units downtown and 11,000 new residents, for a total population of 88,0000.
• Serious crime has been cut in half and auto theft was cut by 80 percent, Levy says. Nuisance crimes were greatly reduced with help from computerized crime mapping paid for by the BID. "A ton of crimes get committed any place when the criminal thinks nobody is watching," Levy says.

Improving the local psyche

Business Improvement Districts are common in cities throughout the country, including  Pittsburgh. “Philadelphia is one of the best programs in the country but it has a lot of resources,” says Mike Edwards, executive director of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnerships (PDP). The BID in Philadelphia was organized differently than most, he explains. Due to more of a legal than size issue, Philadelphia is of the first class and Pittsburgh is the second class, so it’s not a direct comparison.

While Philadelphia’s is the most mature and most respected BID in the country, Edwards says, “Pittsburgh has not developed as sophisticated a program as Philly. We have a BID; it’s just not had the same effect as the one in center city.”

Edwards notes two reasons: he is the fourth director in four years, for one, and the initial BID possibly lacked sufficient resources to meet expectations.

Not that Downtown Pittsburgh isn’t experiencing its own phenomenal growth these days. With nearly a billion dollars invested in new projects downtown, the future is very bright indeed.   “For the last 18 months we’ve been trying to expand services to approach Downtown as a comprehensive initiative,” Edwards says. “Philly is a good model for it." 

Edwards has solid faith in Downtown’s Business Improvement District and the PDP in general. “We have a strategic plan in place, know exactly where we are going and expanded our services to meet the new demand. I’m feeling good,” he concludes.

A BID for Oakland

In Oakland, the hub of Eds and Meds in Pittsburgh, a BID formed in 1999 has helped launch a number of successful initiatives. It started with an initial clean up campaign that rid the area of graffiti and other nuisances, says Georgia Petropoulos, executive director of the Oakland Business Improvement District. Another point of pride is the Only in Oakland marketing campaign with a web site that lists more than 200 retail spots and restaurants.

Additionally, a beautification of the business district resulted in 15 storefront renovations, (seven of which were through the URA and Community Design Center) and the public art project with its latest work, the Sprout Fund’s new “Oakland Mural” on the Strand Building on Forbes.

The BID has exceeded expectations, says Petropoulos. “Every year we evolve with new initiatives, new projects. One success piggybacks onto another.”

Boosting Confidence

Business Improvement Districts' benefits are many, says Levi, and provide more than physical improvements. Promotion and marketing of downtown is very important, he says.

"It has a disproportionately positive effect," he says."There's a gigantic psychological impact. When cities decline, there's a psychological decline. When there's a BID, in Philadelphia it built confidence in downtown."

 In many ways, Philadelphia isn't different than Pittsburgh or other industrial cities. It's an old city that suffered when industry moved out along with people who fled to the suburbs and elsewhere. Downtown businesses slowly closed up shop never to re-open. BIDS can help reverse the trend.

"BIDS take responsibility for the public environment in a way that has been neglected for a long time," Levy says. "Cleveland launched a BID in the spring, and things are so upbeat. They've dramatically improved the confidence of investors in downtown.

"If you are depressed,” he says, “You let your house turn into a mess. When you have company coming over, you clean up. You need to have company coming all the time to downtown because it puts a positive spin on things."  

Of course there are major hurdles, primarily the need for business owners to agree to paying more taxes. Levy says when business owners ask, "Are you crazy?" you must answer, "What are the consequences for not paying for this? Do you want to continue to see downtown as a place that's dangerous and not a place to go?"  

Secondly, there must be assurance from the city government that it will continue to provide the base level of services — police, fire and etc. — when the BID begins to supplement those services, Levy says.  "The city must agree not to pull the rug and cut services when there are supplemental services provided.”

And finally, you must get effective business leadership. "You need a handful of leaders to step forward who say that this is something we need, and they start a parade that others follow," he says. "Big businesses have to pay the lion's share of this. That's always the big challenge. Everyone is cost-conscious today."

Philadelphia's BID started with simple goals — cleaning up and providing police protection, and later providing increased lighting, directional signs and landscaping.
A major element of the district was a 10-year tax abatement offered to developers converting properties to residential housing. Since then, 110 buildings have been converted, Levy says. "We built from the simple, which was clean and safe, to promotion and marketing, to physical improvements," he says.

Cooperation from the city and state governments was also key, Levy says, noting the downtown convention center the government built.   

Despite their many benefits, BIDs are no panacea, he adds. There are many factors that go into the revitalization of a downtown, but BIDS can provide important steps. "A BID doesn't change market realities. But a BID can make graffiti go away, it can eliminate fear and put crime behind you. It's one tool of many. You have to be focused on walkability and have a competitive tax structure. You have to have a competitive environment, because that's what the competition is doing."

Lisa Collins is a writer from New York City. Pop City staff contributed to this article.


Polaroid of the Kimmel Performing Arts Center in Philadephia

Center City at night

Paul Levy

Mike Edwards

Market Street at night

CCD community service patrol with pedestrian

Polaroid and Mike Edwards copyright © Jonathan Greene
abstract image of Downtown Philadelphia © Theresa Seri
all other images courtesy of Philadelphia CCD

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