About three weeks ago, a raucous debate erupted on the floor of City Council during a hearing on a proposed ordinance that would create a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) in the area directly north of Chinatown, known as Callowhill to some and Chinatown North to others. The NID would have the power to assess a surcharge on properties to fund local improvement services.
A number of neighborhood residents, including (but not limited to) a large contingent of Asian-Americans, had come to testify against the measure, arguing that the extra tax burden was undue and that they would not be represented by the new entity: The NID's proponents are largely newer, condo-dwelling residents whose interests — such as the possible creation of an elevated park on the now-defunct Reading Railroad viaduct that crosses the neighborhood — don't necessarily match theirs.
On the other side of the debate were residents who argued that their neighborhood — prone to short dumping, graffiti, vacant lots and such — would be better able to reclaim itself with what they saw as a relatively minor sacrifice.
Each side had an ace up its sleeve. The residents opposing the NID claimed they had numbers: A Council vote to create the district could be overturned by the petition of a majority of residents or those representing a majority of the value of the properties. "We have 53 percent!" announced a defiant John Yuen.
The residents for the NID ordinance, on the other hand, had a star witness with close ties to the sponsoring Councilman Frank DiCicco: Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, whose role in the entire affair might, to a casual observer, have seemed a little confusing.
Levy, after all, is neither a public official nor a resident of the neighborhood (he lives in Society Hill, near Headhouse Square). The Center City District, a similarly constructed special tax district that he oversees, doesn't extend north of Arch Street. Who, that casual observer might ask, was this guy, exactly?
If you haven't heard of Paul Levy yet, the odds are getting better every day that you will. The ubiquitous street-cleaning machines along the streets of Center City? Levy's work. The new lollipop signs outside Center City trolley stations and bus stops? Levy. The small army of walkie-talkie-carrying "ambassadors" along Center City streets? The newish Cafe Cret on the Ben Franklin Parkway? The controversial attempted crackdown on panhandling? The innovative (and recently shuttered) Community Court? Levy, Levy, Levy. Now in its 20th year, the Center City District has grown from a modest street-cleaning and marketing machine to the hub of an ever-growing empire of influence. Levy, its commander in chief, presides over a budget of almost $20 million annually, earns roughly double the salary of Mayor Michael Nutter, and has positioned himself at the helm of a remarkably agile and increasingly far-reaching institution: Unelected and largely unfettered by bureaucracy, he might be called something of a Center City monarch.
The viaduct is just the latest of Levy's many ambitious dreams for Philly. And it's exactly the kind of project he just might pull off: slightly impossible, somewhat contentious and probably on his own terms.
Of his various radical ideas, perhaps the most radical idea Paul Levy ever had — and, it would turn out, the smartest — was to believe that the filthy, neglected, crime-ridden Center City of the 1980s was Philly's ticket to success.
He had already abandoned one city, coming to Philly after getting laid off from teaching public schools during a 1972 budget crisis in New York. He worked at a toy store on South Street, and then in a series of political jobs centered around housing, including a stint at the city's Office of Housing and Community Development and in an organization called the Central Philadelphia Development Corp.
In 1991, City Council authorized a new entity: the Center City District (CCD), a "business improvement district," legally its own quasi-municipality, with Levy in charge. Its mission was to improve life in Center City, and it had the power to impose an extra surcharge from property owners in the district to do it.
The early days of the CCD seem rather quaint. One of its earliest initiatives, called "Make It a Night," was to persuade businesses, most of which closed as soon as offices did, to stay open to the wee hours of 8 p.m.: "A lot of change comes from gradual improvements," Levy explains.
The program expanded to advertising, street cleaning, tree planting — and then to bigger goals. As the housing market bubbled upward, Levy and his organization tried to persuade owners of vacant office space to convert to condos. It proved a smart decision: Businesses might not have moved en masse to Center City throughout the '90s and '00s, but people did. In 2005, as condos boomed, the district began to tax them, as well.
And there seem to be few voices of dissent, aside from an ongoing lawsuit by Center City resident (and millionaire) Tom Knox and former Pa. Supreme Court justice Russell Nigro, who allege that Levy's decision to grandfather pre-2005 condo owners out of the tax is illegal. Center City, everyone agrees, looks the best it has in decades. And Levy, almost everyone agrees, deserves some credit for it.
In 2006, he received the prestigious Philadelphia Award for his work in Center City. In the past decade, a handful of copycat improvement districts have sprung up, such as the Old City District, which credited Levy's work as its inspiration. The CCD, though, remains the foremost example; when Old City decided to do its own street cleaning, it simply rented his workers and machines.
"Paul is almost singularly effective in terms of taking an idea and showing how it can happen," summarizes Sam Little, president of the Logan Square Civic Association. "That's one of the reasons he's everywhere."
Increasingly, Paul Levy is everywhere.
As Center City has become cleaner and wealthier, the CCD has taken on a broader role — not always welcome by all. His support of a stadium and casino in Chinatown earned him that neighborhood's wrath. His drive to reduce the homeless presence in Center City provoked the ire of social services advocates — though CCD, he's proud to point out, has hired the formerly homeless as street cleaners.
Levy's even taken up the cause of public education, recently addressing a Society Hill crowd on the need to get involved in the city's public and charter schools.
"I couldn't possibly disagree with him more about the casino," acknowledges schools activist Helen Gym, "but he genuinely cares about quality education for Philadelphia kids. It's not something you often find in the business community."
The CCD has expanded geographically, as well — past its own borders, in fact. In June 2010, the CCD began to engage in a series of public improvements on the Parkway, which lies outside its assessment district. Levy has authorized street cleaning in Chinatown, even though that neighborhood, too, lies outside his district. He even presided over the building of a fountain in Headhouse Square — more than a stone's throw from the CCD, though not so far, as a few critics pointed out to City Paper, from his own Society Hill home. "Families love it," Levy explains.
Levy's been able to skip past the ostensible boundaries of his organization thanks to the surprisingly complex and brilliantly powerful construction of his organization. The CCD is, effectively, three organizations operating as one, each with Levy at its head. It's a legal municipality, periodically reauthorized by City Council. It's also, effectively, a nonprofit: Technically, it "partners" with the nonprofit organization the Central Philadelphia Development Corp., which shares the CCD's office, staff and leader (Levy). Unlike the CCD, it's a 501(c)3 corporation, eligible to receive tax-free donations from foundations. It's also a foundation: Levy is the executive director and CEO of the Center City District Foundation. Levy's salary as head of all three organizations is just over $350,000, with benefits.
The CCD is, effectively, whatever it wants to be, an arrangement that affords Levy tremendous authority over an enormous budget — not always a bad thing in a city that has to hold fundraisers to keep swimming pools open. "This is what's going to happen all over the city in the near future," says Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger. "You're going to see these quasi-public and quasi-private partnerships ... all in the mix to make things happen."
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."
About a week ago, I was invited to a presentation by Levy on the Reading viaduct project — the ambitious dream, festering for a decade, to turn a piece of Philadelphia blight, a neighborhood problem no administration has solved thus far, into a remarkable elevated park. I had assumed the presentation was being held in response to the uproar over the creation of a Callowhill Neighborhood Improvement District a few weeks before — in other words, that Levy's intent was to assuage disgruntled neighborhood residents and sell them on his idea. Then I realized it had been scheduled for 4 p.m.
The presentation, it turned out, was for a small handful of reporters, including the head of the Inquirer 's editorial board. Within a week two editorials appeared in the Inquirer, one backing the park, and the other saying the NID was a good idea.
It had been, to be fair, a heck of a presentation. In person, Levy is hardly regal: He's affable, excited, infectiously optimistic. In PowerPoint slide after slide, a garbage-strewn track became a walking path; a rusty trestle became a vine-covered urban sculpture. A disaster became a dreamscape.
For years, the idea of the viaduct park had been the decidedly underdog cause of a few passionate neighborhood residents, notably John Struble and Sarah McEneaney. Since Levy's coming on board, that's changed. To Levy, the benefits are obvious: Such a park would spur investment and revitalize an area so tantalizingly close to downtown it could become Philly's next neighborhood success story. It is, for Levy and his organization, a Center City vision.
But it's located at the epicenter of another vision, that of Philadelphia's century-old Chinatown community to survive in the face of a slew of other Center City visions that have threatened to destroy it: Market East, the expanded Convention Center, a proposed stadium, the Vine Street Expressway, the proposed relocation of Foxwoods Casino. Chinatown residents unapologetically fought each, sometimes losing but often winning. As Levy strays farther from his Center City kingdom, he'll have to become less the monarch and more the statesman.
So far, despite the acrimony over the proposed NID, Chinatown's leadership still seems open to the viaduct park idea, provided it includes affordable housing. Levy's laid out some ideas already, and Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. executive director John Chin tells CP he finds them intriguing.
Last weekend, I climbed (illegally) onto the viaduct to see it for myself. Looking across the city skyline from that lonely, elevated track, it's hard not to start dreaming.
"Any landscaper, any landscape architect we take up there, they just drool," agreed Struble, the longtime viaduct proponent, later on the phone.
"Look, here's what I think about Paul," Struble suddenly volunteered. "If he was in Boston or New York or Chicago instead of Philly, they'd all be saying, 'How come we don't have someone like him here in Philadelphia?'"