Others see a worrisome concentration of power. More than one former staffer interviewed by CP described the CCD's processes as being highly internal and largely unaccountable, driven almost entirely by Levy himself.
"You can call up and say, 'My street is dirty,' and they'll come clean it," says one former staffer. "But when it comes to how the money's spent, there's maybe 20 people with a direct line to Paul."
"Here you have a private group within a subgroup of private people who make all the decisions. ... One of the things that makes CCD so effective is it has a strong leader. He wants to get stuff done, and he gets stuff done."
The Center City District's upcoming renovation of Dilworth Plaza, the "front yard" of City Hall, is without doubt the most ambitious and grandiose project Levy has taken on yet. And some call it his biggest coup.
Created in the mid-'70s, along with the two adjacent public plazas "as pedestals for buildings, rather than parks for people," as Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron has opined, the plaza has long been criticized for its bleak surface, fortress-like walls and general unpopularity.
Levy has been kicking around the idea for a large-scale renovation for Dilworth Plaza for some time. The details have evolved, but the gist involves covering over the plaza's large holes that access the lower level and creating a wide, traversable space — part of which could become an ice rink — with new subway entrances that lead to a renovated, public-art-imbued transit access area below. The design has earned a great amount of praise.
In August 2010, the CCD submitted an application for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, part of the 2008 National Recovery Act. The move surprised some city insiders: According to several sources, SEPTA, which also submitted a TIGER grant proposal for its long-awaited New Payment Technology (aka "smart cards"), had expected that the powers-that-be would support it. TIGER grants, after all, were for transportation.
Instead, that October, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the CCD had been awarded $15 million in capital funding for Levy's Dilworth project. Suddenly, the CCD was in charge of arguably the most visible public project in years. City insiders say the planning community was caught off guard.
"SEPTA had New Payment Technology, the City Hall station is crumbling, the streets department had put in for bridgework," explains one source. "We knew CCD had submitted, but no one took it seriously."
With the grant money in CCD's hands, SEPTA now faced the prospect of possibly having to undertake the renovation of the City Hall station — a feat of enormous engineering complexity — ahead of its own plans. Still, SEPTA has apparently gotten on board since. "Make no mistake," says Byron Comate, director of strategic planning and analysis for SEPTA. "There's a strong partnership here."
Levy pooh-poohs the idea that he stepped on any toes. "Three grant proposals went to the federal authorities, and Mayor Nutter had signed off on all three," he says.
But also of concern to some was the speed with which the Dilworth plan was moving. There was the issue, suddenly, of leasing a major, prominent public property to the privately run CCD. On Dec. 8, Council's Committee on Public Property and Public Works held a hearing on a bill that would lease the plaza to Levy's organization for 30 years. The bill, introduced only six days prior, was surprisingly sparse: Just over two pages, it contained virtually no detail regarding how authority over the public space would be handled in its transfer from public to private hands — a point that bothered a few Council members.
"I mean, we have minimal influence over what you do," Councilman Darrell Clarke pointed out at the hearing, asking for reassurance that the city would retain substantial control over public events. Later in the hearing, Clarke noted, "The whole district prerogative thing works most times, but, you know, this is City Hall."
"We understand that our authority is derived from this City Council," Levy responded. "You have our word."
There was also the issue of public input and buy-in. Only one person appeared at that hearing in opposition: John Gallery, executive director of the city's Preservation Alliance, who charged, "I have been involved in every public meeting on Dilworth Plaza in the last over two years. I have not seen anything whatsoever in a year."
The idea that Levy sometimes left the public out of his planning process is one that clearly irks him, and which he hotly disputes. Asked about public involvement in the design for Dilworth Plaza, Levy provided CP with a list of some 59 presentations he'd given between spring 2008 and July 2011.
But Gallery isn't the only one to have brought up this point. In February, the Inquirer 's Saffron, noting that the project was moving with "unusual speed," wrote that some people were "upset that the project hasn't had the same level of public back-and-forth as a city-run project" and that Levy had promised to present the newest plans "just days before hearings at the city's Art and Historical Commissions."
Levy responded with a sarcastic letter to the Inquirer — "If a project is publicly presented 43 times but a reporter is not there, did the presentations occur?" — but also a blitz of new presentations.
Several people interviewed by CP contrasted that experience with the planning process for the city's waterfront redevelopment plan, which included public sessions, workshops, citizen feedback periods and other opportunities for broad public involvement. While Levy's presentations have tended to be held before small groups of important people, such as boards of directors, city department heads and residents of Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, Penn Praxis presented the waterfront plans to a dizzying number of community groups — "the exact antithesis of how CCD operates," as another former CCD staffer puts it. "Enormous public engagement, multiple meetings with all of the stakeholders ... Paul just doesn't operate that way.
"He's a very brilliant guy, and I don't throw that word around. He's honest, he's a straight-shooter, and he totally believes in what he's doing. He just doesn't give a shit what other people think."
"I'm a total fan. It's so un-Philadelphian to have somebody stake out a plan and pursue it," counters attorney Steven Huntington, former president of the Center City Residents' Association. "He's gone from 'A' to 'B' — that's something to be admired."
"He does have a lot of power, but he made it all himself. Nobody gave this to him," says another longtime fan of Levy's work. "A lot of people would like to have done what he's done, and are jealous that they didn't."