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The man who helped revitalize downtown Philly is ready to step back after 30 years leading Center City District

Paul Levy played a significant role in Philadelphia’s renewal. This week, he announced his successor.

Paul Levy and Prema Katari Gupta in front of Center City District's east Chestnut Street headquarters.
Paul Levy and Prema Katari Gupta in front of Center City District's east Chestnut Street headquarters.Read moreCenter City District

When Paul Levy became founding CEO of the Center City District, the Soviet Union still existed, The Silence of the Lambs topped the box office, and President George H.W. Bush was enjoying approval ratings of almost 90%.

Now more than 30 years later, the head of one of America’s most influential business improvement districts has announced this week that he will step down as chief executive at the end of 2023.

His successor will be Prema Katari Gupta, who joined the organization in 2020 after five years in leadership at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

She will become president and CEO of the Center City District on Jan. 1, 2024, while Levy will move into the role of non-executive chair of the board. He will remain in that position through the end of 2024 but will no longer be involved in the organization’s day-to-day operations.

“We did consider competitively searching across the country, but you know enough about Philadelphia to know how hard it is for someone to parachute in,” Levy said. “Prema knows the city; the city knows her. I can’t think of anybody better to take over.”

What is the Center City District?

Founded in 1991, the organization is a business improvement district (BID). It’s a publicly sanctioned, privately run organization that levies a surcharge on property owners to pay for additional services in a specific geographic area.

The model first emerged to buoy the fortunes of older downtowns as they sought to compete with suburban office parks and so-called edge cities in the 1980s. Center City District was one of the early iterations of the concept. It quickly hired sidewalk cleaners and unarmed security personnel to make downtown Philadelphia more amenable to business interests that might be considering leaving.

A longstanding critique of BIDs is that they heighten urban inequality by providing additional semi-private services to higher-income areas that can afford them. That increases disparities between neighborhoods and quiets a potential constituency for stronger public services citywide.

Levy dismisses that argument, noting that Center City is an economic hub and revenue generator for the rest of Philadelphia.

“I’d like you to go on to City Council and propose $31 million of funding for sidewalk cleaning, public safety, and lighting in the downtown,” Levy said this week. “They’re taking care of the rest of the city. They’ve got constituents who need services more than we need services. That’s the basic politics.”

Since CCD’s creation, the city has bounced back by many measures — especially in Center City and the neighborhoods around it. While never reaching the heights of the first half of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s population began growing again, the tax base recovered, centrally located neighborhoods revitalized, and crime ebbed (until recently).

CCD’s precise role in these trends is debatable. Its stewardship of downtown coincided with a renewed interest in urban living and capital’s newfound willingness to invest in cities again. But most power players in the city believe that Levy and his organization played a significant role in downtown’s renewal.

What does the Center City District do?

Center City District directly employs or contracts with 240 people in roles from sanitation and security to research and marketing. It produces reports on housing, retail, and population trends in central Philadelphia but also provides streetscape and art installations to spruce up commercial corridors.

Levy himself has played an advocacy role in such issues as taxation (he is a frequent critic of the city’s wage tax). An early campaign called “Make It a Night” convinced downtown retail and eateries to stay open after 5 p.m. When many regional corporations chose segregated suburban enclaves, Levy was an early champion of the redevelopment of historic downtown office buildings into high-rise residential complexes.

Levy and his organization also spearheaded major projects such as the remodeling of Dilworth Park in front of City Hall, transforming it from an ill-kempt warren of concrete enclosures to a manicured recreational area.

Critics, some from The Inquirer, have contended that the new Dilworth Park represents a privatization of public space with brands such as Starbucks allowed to set up shop on public land. “We no longer have a direct say in how our parks are managed, particularly the trade-off between commerce and public access,” wrote Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron in 2019.

But like Levy, Gupta argues that CCD’s work is for everyone and strengthens the whole city.

“Downtown belongs to all of us, and we see Dilworth Park as a microcosm of that,” said Gupta, currently CCD’s vice president of parks and the public realm.

“We’re able to track who uses Dilworth Park and downtown residents” are underrepresented, Gupta said. “It’s people from West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia, the very lower Northeast. Those are the folks that come to Dilworth because it’s connected to transit.”

Who is Prema Katari Gupta?

Gupta began at CCD in 2020, mere weeks before COVID-19 swept the country. But her experience with business improvement districts is deep. From 2015 to 2020, she was senior vice president of planning and real estate development at the Navy Yard. Before that she worked for the University City District for five years as head of urban planning and economics development.

While at CCD, Gupta has focused on bolstering pandemic-beleaguered public areas and reviving retail’s fortunes on Walnut and Chestnut Streets. As she moves into the new position, Gupta said, public transportation and pedestrian safety will be a major focus.

“There are a lot of interesting things we can do around making people’s commutes as frictionless as possible,” Gupta said. “We’re thinking about how we can better work with SEPTA to create pathways into Center City to make that a little bit more pleasant.”

Gupta’s move to CCD in 2020 was widely seen as the focus of Levy’s succession planning. It’s long been assumed that she would one day take over Center City District, although the timing never seemed clear given that Levy, who is 76, seemed in no hurry to depart.

“Prema made me do it,” Levy joked when asked about what inspired the announcement. “But, seriously, I have the same issue that any founder of an organization has. I couldn’t imagine myself without the organization or the organization without me. That is not healthy for any organization.”

Why the long transition?

Levy said that he originally intended to step down at CCD’s 30th anniversary in 2021. But with Philadelphia’s fortunes, along with the rest of urban America’s, at a low ebb, he couldn’t bring himself to leave just then.

Today, Levy finds himself among the last of the original BID leaders who is still in a leadership role.

“Under the leadership of Paul Levy, Center City District really defined what an effective public private partnership does,” said David T. Downey, president of the International Downtown Association, based in Washington. “He is one of the last remaining founding CEOs of a major downtown center city management organization. This marks the end of three decades of leadership that established this work as its very own profession.”

Levy said that CCD’s board members, many of whom come from the corporate world, were pressing him to seriously consider succession planning. The lengthy transition will be easier on both of them, Levy said, allowing him to slowly wind down and step back while keeping him in the room to answer any questions Gupta may have. After this year, he will be around to provide advice, he said, but she will be free to ignore it.

“I have as much energy as I did 40 years ago, but [as a 76-year-old], we need people in leadership positions who are much younger or have kids in the city now,” Levy said. “We need leadership that’s more attuned to the different demographics of the city.”