Ryan Fitzpatrick grew up taking the Market-Frankford Line downtown to marvel at what was known then as the Wanamaker light show -- now Macy’s -- every holiday season. This year, something new lured him into town: the Dilworth Park ice rink at the foot of City Hall.
On Monday, Fitzpatrick laughed as daughter Sadie gave her 7-year-old’s assessment of what has become a popular winter draw: “It was slippery.”
And Fitzpatrick, of Ardmore, suggested that he might do what more and more have over the last few years: make a stop at Dilworth as part of his family’s Christmas tradition.
His family was among throngs of longtime city dwellers, suburban residents, and out-of-towners all attracted to the lively atmosphere in the center of Philadelphia on the day before Christmas. Seeing the Macy’s light show or the Holiday Spectacular show at the Comcast Center have been part of the holiday traditions for many, but the transformation of Dilworth Park just around the corner from Macy’s has started some new ones, too.
The park’s conversion into an open, green public space with events and a winter ice skating rink was part of the Center City District’s efforts to connect the Rittenhouse shopping area to Market East. It’s starting to pay off, if visitor numbers are anything to go by.
Attendance this year at Dilworth Park already surpassed last year’s record of 10 million by more than 83,000 as of Dec. 18, according to data provided by the CCD. In 2015, the first full year after the revamp, the park saw almost 8.7 million visitors. Events at Dilworth have also increased to 255 planned events through the end of this year, from 173 in 2015.
Dilworth used to be an unappealing granite plaza largely known as a refuge for the homeless, without amenities or public attractions, and with a physical design punctuated by walls and dingy stairwells. Paul Levy, the CCD president and CEO, described it as one of the places you wouldn’t take your family if they were visiting from out of town.
“Dilworth was a place to be avoided five years ago,” Levy said, “and now it’s a destination.”
Today, it is not only an inviting park to walk through on the way to work, but it also boasts holiday attractions such as the Deck the Hall Light Show, the Wintergarden, Rothman Orthopaedics Ice Rink and the Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market, with more than 40 local vendors. The Center City District manages the park through a long-term lease with the city.
“It brings back so many memories,” said Ebi Johnson, 34, who was out with her husband and two kids the day before Christmas. Johnson has been going to the Macy’s light show since her childhood. Now Dilworth Park is part of the family’s visit to the city from their home in Willingboro. “We can’t let the Christmas season pass and not come,” Johnson said.
While watching the kids and families ice skating, and falling, Gene and Eleanor Ott, ages 77 and 76, remembered what the park looked like before the renovations.
“It was dank and dark and it wasn’t clean,” said Gene Ott, of Doylestown. “So it’s really a nice turnaround.”
Center City’s burgeoning East retail district is poised to benefit from $910 million in investment and 1.2 million square feet of additional retail from projects like the Fashion District, East Market and the Independence Collection.
The CCD wants to create a “seamless experience” across the area and the revitalized park is a “way of stitching it together.”
When visitors come to the city, Lauren Gilchrist, senior vice president of research for JLL Philadelphia, said it’s common for them to stop by both Rittenhouse Square and Independence Hall. But they may not be eager to walk the little less than a mile and a half in between.
But in an urban environment such as Philadelphia, foot traffic plays a large role in the visibility of stores, she said. The activities at Dilworth now give people something to do in between.
“When you keep people out of cabs and out of of Ubers, they are more likely to stop somewhere and buy more. So when you think about the fact that Dilworth keeps people more engaged on the street and foot traffic is higher, it’s a very important retail node,” Gilchrist said. “There’s more reason than ever for pedestrians to visit all parts of Center City and not just the west side of town.”
Dilworth becoming “a holiday winter destination" that didn’t exist years ago helps attract more people to Center City and aids local businesses, said Steven H. Gartner, the executive vice president of global retail services at CBRE Inc.
“Anything that brings more people to Center City for good reason helps retail and restaurants,” Gartner said, referring to the activities at Dilworth Park. “Yet again, we continue to see the logical expansion of the Center City experience to new geographies.”
The vendors at the Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market have seen the benefits of increased foot traffic over the years, too. This was Cirese Clindinin’s third year setting up her Down to Earth Body Shop at Dilworth and she said her sales keep increasing.
“It’s the best way to really maximize your Christmas sales because the traffic you get here is similar to almost like a mall,” said Clindinin, who declined to share exact revenues. “It has changed my life because it gives you a boost for next year.”
The exposure at Dilworth had the same effect on Ana Thorne’s business. It cost her, and the two others she shares the booth with, $5,500 for the season, she said. Though she did not share her total sales so far, she said the trio made their money back within the first week.
“We definitely have made way more than we’ve invested here,” Thorne said. Earlier in the season, Thorne’s products included a handmade Gritty pillow for $35 and they all sold out in two days.
Even though Caitlin Hyde, 34, of Fairmount, had already been through Dilworth “like 10 times” this year, she walked through Monday for some last-minute shopping after perusing the LOVE Park Christmas Village. Wandering inside Thorne’s booth, she picked out a $27 “From Philly with Love” onesie for her niece.
This was the first time the Brahler family came to Dilworth Park on purpose. They had stopped by before, when there wasn’t an ice skating rink, but decided to get in some holiday-related activities the day before Christmas.
Michael Brahler, 48, of Meadowbrook, held his 8-year-old daughter Isabel’s hand as she tried to skate around the rink. His son, Max, 12, zipped around and enjoyed it so much that he leaned over the edge and asked his mother if he could play ice hockey.
“We’ll see,” Amanda Brahler, 42, responded. Every few trips around, the kids skated toward her and 3-year-old Stella to chat and say hi from the ice.
As far as whether the family will be back next year, Michael Brahler said, “now, it’s a tradition.”