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."