Case Study

The Center City District, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: a business improvement district (1990 to 1995, continuing to 2015; now continuing to 2025)

Central Philadelphia, known as Center City, is defined as the area between the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers, the Vine Street Expressway and South Street - an area falling within about a 20-minute walk of City Hall. The historic core of the city (and of the founding of the United States) falls within it. The area did not see the overwhelming economic and physical environmental degradation that many downtowns of United States cities experienced in the 1960s but it had been stagnating. The construction of a new convention centre was begun in the late 1980s and has been in operation since the early 1990s. This hotly disputed initiative had been part of the effort to revitalize Center

City. This development and a number of earlier urban design/planning efforts served as precedents on which the city could build.

Aggressive city planning/urban design under director Edmund Bacon had led to the revitalization (and gentrification) of the severely decayed Society Hill neighbourhood and other inner city areas, the unification of the railway system and the development of the Gallery, an internal centre city shopping mall. From the 1970s on there has been an increase in the number of households living within a mile (1600 meters) of the City Hall (although this increase was not accompanied by an equally significant increase in population). The population, itself was generally wealthy, and a disproportionate number (37%) walk to work and 60% do not own a car. Despite these successes the center of the city, apart from some well-loved places and streets, was still seen as dirty and poorly maintained. In addition, many locally owned national and international conglomerates with little interest in Philadelphia other than as a source of revenue were buying up major locally owned businesses (Lehman, 2000). The city government was perceived to be incapable of making improvements. What then do to about it?

The Center City District (CCD), a municipal authority, was formed by city officials and the business community in 1990. In accordance with state law if more than 30% of the property owners objected it would not have been possible to do so. The proportion in opposition did not reach this figure. The formation of the CCD was also supported by the City Council who authorized its operation until 1995 by a 14 to 1 vote. This authorization was extended in 1994 until 2015 and again in 2004 to 2025. The CCD is headed by Paul Levy, a one-time academic at the University of Pennsylvania, and has a 23-member board. The board has the power to chase the small proportion of property owners who fail to pay their dues. The CCD's budget (about $14 million from a levy on the property tax) first went to the provision of sidewalk cleaning (provided by a private contractor) and public safety. The scope of its concerns expanded later. The goal was 'to increase the number of people on the streets - workers, residents, shoppers, tourists, conventioneers and people drawn for entertainment - to recreate 1948 (Levy, 2001: 190).

In 1991 the board solicited proposals and received 75 responses from individuals

and groups for the security and cleaning programmes, including graffiti removal, that it felt was necessary to improve the quality of the precinct under its jurisdiction. The success of the effort gave the board and its members confidence in its activities. In the fifth year of its existence, the Board felt comfortable enough to start on a street upgrading programme. A 20-year $US21 million bond was raised to finance capital improvements of the streetscape. The city contributed about $5 million. The goal was to establish a 'new look' in order to raise the prestige level of the city. The look was created through new 'pedestrian-scaled' lighting standards, new street trees, new pedestrian maps and signage, the repaving of streets, making the environment easy to use by people in wheelchairs, and by adding new kerbs. The CCD board also took over the maintenance of the existing street trees, many of which were languishing, from the city administration (see Figures 9.8 and 9.9).

In all these efforts, the concern with the third dimension of the city has been restricted to creating advisory guidelines for how property owners might: (1) improve the fa├žades of their buildings and (2) how they might convert disused or underused buildings to other, predominantly residential, uses. In this way the district would be improved piece-by-piece over time. Each improvement would act as a catalyst for further improvements by the property owners themselves. The objective is for property owners to benefit from increased income, the city to have an increased tax-base, and for citizens to have a district of which they are proud and to which they like going - a place to have fun in safety.

Has the programme been successful? Retail occupancy increased from 80% to

Figure 9.9 A uniformed street maintenance worker, Market Street, Philadelphia in 1993.

almost 90% over an 8-year period but there are still many underused buildings in the city. According to a survey most people were aware of the CCD programme. The presence of customer service representatives with radios and of street cleaners providing a sense of security was particularly noted and appreciated. The city is still full of panhandlers and the homeless but the central precinct certainly looks better. Has there been a catalytic effect on building? Not much! Perhaps that is still to come. Tax incentives may have their impact. Certainly the conversion of old industrial and commercial buildings or their unused parts to residential has progressed and is encouraged by the CCD. Overall the CCD is seen as 'hugely successful' in doing what the city administration seemed incapable of doing -improving the quality of Center City.

Major references

Houston Jr, Lawrence O. (1997). Center City District. In BIDs: Business Improvement Districts. Washington, DC: The Urban Land Institute, 133-49.

Lehman, Nicholas (2000). No man's town: the good times are killing off America's local elites. The New Yorker (June 5): 42-9.

Levy, Paul R. (2001). Downtown: competitive for a new century. In Jonathan Barnett, ed. Planning for a New Century: The Regional Agenda. Washington, DC: Island Press, 135-76.

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