From the grand perch of the 50th floor of the Bell Atlantic Tower, Mayor-elect Michael Nutter yesterday vowed to lead Philadelphia in the "greatest turnaround" of any major American city in modern times.

The lofty words, delivered to about 100 city business leaders at a meeting of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp., served as a reminder of the ambitious reform agenda that Nutter has promised to pursue once he takes office next month.

Nutter touched on issues identified by group members as a priority for Center City and the business community, including public safety, transportation, homelessness and the much-reviled business-privilege tax.

But his nearly hour-long address, which drew a standing ovation, and the question-and-answer forum that followed also showcased the candor and air of subject mastery that helped the former city councilman win the mayor's race.

A case in point was the subject of homelessness and sleeping on the sidewalks, which Center City businesses identified in a survey as one of their top concerns.

Nutter illustrated the problem by describing how the homeless sleep on benches in the shadow of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the luxurious Four Seasons hotel.

At the same time, he called the city's shelter system substandard. Some of the shelters "are inhumane," he said.

When asked if he would enforce laws more strictly to rein in outdoor sleeping and other behavior, Nutter said, "Yes, within reason."

He said the city couldn't pursue "zero tolerance" if the homeless and other street people didn't have acceptable places to go.

On crime, the top campaign issue, Nutter promoted a program to give businesses tax credits if they hire people who have prison records.

"They're coming right back to Philadelphia," he said.

Nutter said that most of the "mayhem and murder" was being caused by a small percentage of the population, and that the problems that led criminals astray needed to be addressed more effectively.

On transportation, he demanded that SEPTA improve its service, saying that if its fares were going to be among the nation's highest, its service should be among the best.

He talked about cleaning subway concourses and opening businesses in spaces that are known mainly for their foul odors.

In comments aimed at the more influential members of the audience, he said his appointments to boards and commissions would not be based simply on politics or friendships.

He also ripped the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment, where property owners go - many not happily - if they want to change or improve their properties beyond zoning restrictions. Nutter called the board an "absolute embarrassment."

"We're going to clean up that place," he said.

Nutter said he hadn't run for mayor to be "caretaker of the largest hospice in the country."

He concluded, "This city is going to turn itself around, in some instances whether it wants to or not."

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.