The Avenue of the Arts was instrumental in reviving South Broad Street and Center City, but a number of factors - including the nationwide trend of moving back into cities - worked together to restore retail, ignite the restaurant scene, and make Philadelphia livelier. Paul Levy, founding president and chief executive officer of the Center City District for 22 years, paints the fuller picture.
Peter Dobrin: You have some views on what role arts and culture played in the revitalization of Center City?
Paul Levy: We published a plan in December of 1990 which articulated a framework for a linear Lincoln Center, but even in there, it talked about this not just as an exclusive arts district, but as a mixed-use place. And when [Mayor] Rendell came in and sort of made that idea his own, he breathed his life into it with his extraordinary fund-raising and did the streetscape part of it, and Bill Hankowsky [then-president of Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.] worked out the deals with the cultural institutions.
I think it had two or three effects. One is that, obviously, they got resources to various cultural institutions to carry out plans for upgrades, and gave us new facilities like the Arts Bank, the Wilma got built, and obviously later the Kimmel Center. But also there was a rebranding of the place. It had an effect that, when retailers or restaurateurs were interested in being in a place, it had an address now, it had a name, a marketing value.
The two other overlays of the 1990s were the Convention Center, opened a year later, in 1993, and that began to drive demand for a significant number of hotel rooms. PSFS became Loews, the Marriott got created. That began to create other demand for retail and restaurants. It made it a place other people wanted to be. And the 1997 10-year tax abatement is the other big stimulus for the reuse of upper floors, and buildings that used to be office became residential. To me, the big word is diversification - that is, what happened is the diversification of downtown land use triggered by the Avenue of the Arts.
If you think about Center City in 1990 - dirty, dangerous, a place to be avoided - our role was obviously to change the reality and perception of the public environment, but I know Rendell initially thought about the Avenue of the Arts not simply as an arts strategy, but what can we do to get folks from the suburbs to come back into the city?
P.D.: What do you think has worked, and what do you think hasn't realized its potential along the Avenue of the Arts?
Levy: People of a certain age will say let's go to South Street - they have a sense of what's going on there. I think Avenue of the Arts has that. I think just place-branding raises the profile of an area, and that's been hugely successful. As a vehicle for fund-raising, as a nonprofit vehicle for communications and fund-raising - highly successful.
I think the challenge today is, absent somebody in the mayor's office or governor's office making this a number-one priority, there is a continuing need to market the place. I think one of the missed opportunities was clearly, could there have been a dedicated funding stream put in place? There is an arguable case that it would have been helpful to have some place-specific marketing. If we wanted to upgrade the physical environment, where is the revenue for that? That's not easily done.
P.D.: When you are talking about dedicated funding, you are speaking about the need for funding of marketing or for the ongoing operating needs of arts and culture groups?
Levy: I was focusing on Avenue of the Arts Inc. as a marketing organization. The institutions may say we don't need that. If you're asking me what is the case for continuity for an organization like that, there's an umbrella effect that it could achieve.
P.D.: In terms of looking up and down the Avenue from City Hall to Washington Avenue, what are the gaps in the smile?
Levy: If you look back at what we did in 1990, it articulated a vision of continuity down Broad Street to Washington. We've only partially achieved that. This is a slow-growth city in terms of office development, so you are not likely to see office development going south. Going much farther south with hotel development probably doesn't make sense because proximity to the Convention Center or historic area would be the driver there.
There is an ongoing challenge of what are those market uses that can replace a lot of the vacant lots or one-story buildings farther south. If you go one block off of Broad Street on either side, the residential infill is remarkable. So it's conceivable that the notion of continuing arts-related uses below Catharine or Christian might be overreaching. Maybe there is a different future for that area.
P.D.: So to what extent were the arts responsible for the city's comeback?