Next mayor urged to improve Center City

Center City District's Paul Levy said that would keep Phila. competitive.

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The Center City District's new master plan for Center City calls for the granite plaza in front of City Hall to become a public park with an outdoor skating rink, a large grassy lawn, and cafes.

Paul Levy, who runs the Center City District, waded into the increasingly polarized debate over city planning yesterday, telling a national convention that Philadelphia's next mayor would have to hone a detailed strategy for making downtown look and function better.

"It's not because rich people live there, but because Center City is a vital piece of the economy," Levy argued during a presentation to members of the American Planning Association, which is holding its annual meeting this week in Philadelphia. "If you don't reinvest, you're going to be less competitive."

His comments were an oblique response to U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who stunned a mayoral forum devoted to urban design last week by saying planning projects would take a backseat to antipoverty programs if he were elected mayor.

Fattah suggested planning was a niche issue of interest mainly to affluent Center City residents, and said he preferred to focus on education and housing for the poor. "I'm interested in rebuilding the lives of people and not just the skyline," Fattah told the forum audience.

Levy's group, which is funded by downtown businesses and major property owners, has long been frustrated by what it considers a lack of planning in Center City. That inattention, he said, has undercut the competitiveness of Philadelphia's office core. His organization has begun to fill the vacuum by commissioning its own master plans.

As part of his presentation at the convention, Levy released a new master plan for Center City, titled "Center City: Planning for Growth, 2007-2012." Though not as detailed as a typical government-produced master plan, it offers 25 ideas for the next mayor that Levy said would make Center City an easier sell to new businesses and residents.

The proposals range from modest tweaks - such as turning part of Market Street into a two-way thoroughfare - to major infrastructure improvements. Levy's plan recommends extending the PATCO Hi-Speed line to 30th Street Station and adding a light-rail line on Market Street from 30th Street to the Delaware River. Many businesspeople believe the city's high-rise office district has poor transit connections.

Perhaps more than any specific proposal, the plan attempts to articulate a vision of the kind of place Center City should be. Levy believes the next mayor should commit himself to protecting downtown's pedestrian-friendly, intimate charm while judiciously admitting new modern buildings.

But he also argues that the city must invest in amenities that improve the quality of life. Perhaps the most seductive idea in the plan is to convert the granite plaza in front of City Hall into a public park with a large grassy lawn, cafes, and an outdoor skating rink.

In yesterday's remarks, Levy observed that it had been easy for politicians to overlook Center City's needs because only 5 percent of the electorate lives there. But he argued that downtown is the beating heart that keeps the rest of the city alive. Despite its small geographic size, Levy said, the business district generates 47 percent of the wages Philadelphians earn.

Even before the mayoral campaign began, there was a growing concern among the city's business leaders and policymakers about a lack of planning. When the state approved two casinos for the Delaware waterfront, that concern turned to alarm. After a group of civic leaders petitioned Mayor Street for more planning, he agreed to allow the private, nonprofit group Penn Praxis to undertake a waterfront study.

Levy's Center City master plan, which comes only weeks after the Center City Residents Association published its own version, is yet another attempt to persuade government leaders that planning is not a luxury.

Levy acknowledged that, although Center City had managed to prosper over the last decade even without much planning, "we need to manage the success we have now." He noted that downtown was increasingly afflicted by traffic jams, unsightly garages, and blank-walled buildings that detract from the ambience.

The city's chief planner, Janice Woodcock, who was in the audience during Levy's presentation, agreed that Center City was too important to the city's overall economy to be taken for granted. "All our sister cities have comprehensive plans and we should, too," she said.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.