How to share the prosperity of Center City?

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The Center City skyline

As a graying boomer living in Philadelphia for more than 40 years, I'm still amazed by the density of pedestrians, even on Sunday and Monday evenings when the place used to be empty. Sure, I'm getting older, but they're really getting younger! It's not just the 107,000 students attending colleges, universities, and medical schools in and around downtown; 40 percent of Greater Center City's full-time population is now age 20 to 34. Boomers, take solace. We're the second-largest demographic downtown and grandparents can smile that 33,471 children have been born to Center City parents. Just watch out for the strollers!

Twenty-six years ago when Center City District started, Center City closed at 5:30 p.m. - no outdoor cafés, a few dozen fine-dining restaurants, and a handful of cultural institutions. Last summer, CCD counted 431 street cafes, 464 full-service restaurants, and 419 arts organizations. The Convention Center attracted 1.1 million people; five million visited Independence National Historical Park; hotel rooms downtown have more than doubled to 11,139, creating construction and entry-level jobs.

Those living in and visiting downtown are just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, 59 percent of residents between Girard Avenue and Tasker Street, river to river, have college degrees; 30 percent have advanced degrees. Yes, 62 percent of Greater Center City residents get to work without a car.

But Center City is also the largest job center in the region with 292,746 salaried slots and an additional 8,500 self-employed individuals, freelancers, and partners. A third of our 300,000 jobs require only an associate degree; a third need no more than a high school diploma. So when SEPTA brings 310,000 passengers into downtown each day, that includes 120,000 workers from Philadelphia neighborhoods north of Girard, south of Tasker, and west of the Schuylkill. An additional 110,170 workers from the suburbs arrive via Regional Rail, highways, and the bridges.

The place we call Greater Center City is just 5.7 percent of the city's land area but generates 32 percent of property-tax revenue for the city and School District, holds 42 percent of all jobs (University City has an additional 11 percent), and it accounts for 43 percent of the wage tax generated by jobs in Philadelphia. (The wage tax covers 46.2 percent of the entire cost of municipal government.) Outside Center City, about 7 percent of workers earn their living in their neighborhood, but 25 percent support families with jobs downtown; 39 percent reverse-commute to the suburbs, but more on that later.

The best news? Education and health-care employment citywide has grown by 55 percent since 1990 and these institutions secured $857 million in National Institutes of Health research grants in 2016. After years of office leasing where the same firms played musical chairs, hopping from building to building, two homegrown corporate giants rise on the skyline and 21 percent of office leases in 2015 and 2016, 1.1 million square feet, went to tenants from outside the city, eager to jump into our talent pool. So too, 400,000 square feet of coworking space serves not only as incubators for local start-ups but also provides suburban firms without offices in the city an easy way to test the water.

Demographics and sustained job growth for 11 of the last 12 years - the best winning streak in 40 years - has driven the housing boom. After years of suburban sprawl, Philadelphia accounted for 52 percent of the region's new multifamily units in 2015 and 38 percent of all types of housing. We simply have more or what more people want.

But what about the other half of the glass? Philadelphia is digging out from decades of severe job loss. Despite recent trends, we still have 25 percent fewer jobs than in 1970 and 6 percent fewer jobs than in 1990. Cities like New York and Boston, which hemorrhaged as many manufacturing jobs, are up 12 percent and 21 percent, respectively, over 1970 employment numbers. No wonder we have one of the highest poverty rates among major American cities and unacceptable levels of unemployment in too many neighborhoods.

When 39 percent of working residents from each neighborhood outside downtown commute to the suburbs, that's 225,000 daily flight risks who get a 3 percent salary increase, as the wage tax drops away, if they find a home near their suburban job. Despite everyone moving into Center City and University City, 70,000 Philadelphians moved out each year between 2010 and 2015, with 40 percent going to adjacent suburbs. Were it not for immigration and local births, we'd still be losing population.

Last year was a very good year for Philadelphia. But from 2010 to 2015, we still had the slowest growth among the 25 largest American cities. So do we just cross our fingers, stay the course, and hope somehow that we'll leap from the back of the pack? Or do we do something dramatic, like change an antiquated tax structure that still underfunds schools, adds a 20 percent to 30 percent premium to the cost of doing business in the city, compared to the suburbs, and leaves 400,000 residents in poverty? It's certainly no time to look to federal or state government for more. We know what success looks like. It's time to spread the benefits citywide.

Paul R. Levy is president of the Center City District, which published "State of Center City, 2017."  plevy@centercityphila.org

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