Despite stifling taxes, Philly leaders counter narrative of decline

Philadelphia skyline
This photo shows the skyline in Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Matt Rourke/AP

Despite stifling taxes, Philly leaders counter narrative of decline

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(The Center Square) — For downtowns in the largest American cities, leaders see a turning point coming in recovering from the pandemic and building for the future.

“A lot of things that we’ve become frustrated with can be dramatically changed as we go forward — but not if we stay asleep,” Paul Levy, leader of the Center City District in Philadelphia, said in a keynote address during the Saul Ewing National Real Estate Conference on Thursday. “This is the moment for business and civic leadership to shape the recovery.”

Levy, who has led the business-improvement district in Philadelphia since 1991, lamented that city leaders “set up a disincentive” in the form of a business-repelling wage tax. Problems like slow economic growth, high poverty rates, and taxes before the pandemic were made even worse when COVID-19 hit, he said.

“When I focus on the wage tax and business taxes, that to me has been the biggest depressant of job growth in this city,” Levy said.

While demurring to endorse or oppose the proposed 76ers basketball arena on Market Street, he argued the street was incomplete, falling short of its potential as a visitor corridor.

“I am in favor of really anything that can add density, that can add vitality, if it is well-designed, if it’s well-integrated into the city, and if we can manage its transportation impact,” Levy said. “The arena is just the pretext for doing what we needed to do for the last 20 years, which is fill in the gaps on Market East.”

The CCD released an analysis of downtown recovery in October, noting that downtown numbers are still down, but approaching 2019 levels. Cities with a larger share of workers in industries where remote work is possible have been slower to recover, as have cities with fewer residents who live close to work.

For recovery, much of that action is out of the hands of mayors and elected officials.

They can, however, require local, state, and federal government workers to return to the office and avoid an “urban doom loop,” Levy said. “Frankly, this needs to be done in the private sector taking the lead in terms of revitalizing their cities.”

Though Philadelphia saw a dramatic spike in murders in 2020 and residents worry about crime, the financial stability of the public transit system, and affordability concerns, Levy argued against cynicism and the inevitability of decline.

“Different leadership in this city, different energy, changes trajectory,” Levy said. “We’ve lived through these cycles before … we know how to do this — we just can’t accept it’s gonna happen on its own, it’s going to take really concerted leadership.”

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