In the five years since a Center City business group took over the management of Dilworth Park, it has packed the three-acre plaza with a variety of commercial activities, and no one has protested. The space in front of Philadelphia’s majestic City Hall now hosts a Rothman Orthopaedics-sponsored drinks tent and skating rink in the winter, weddings and corporate parties in the warmer months, and a full-service cafe and digital billboard all year long. During December, when virtually every spare inch of ground is given over to Christmas Village vendors, Dilworth becomes a park in name only.
But the addition of a tiny coffee kiosk may be the thing that finally prompts Philadelphians to say, “Enough is enough.”
Ever since Conrad Benner denounced the coffee stand last month in a widely read jeremiad on his influential Streets Department blog, the backlash has been deafening. Hundreds of like-minded Philadelphians have chimed in on social media to demand that the park’s manager, the Center City District, drop the project. Four days after Benner posted a petition on Change.org, it had garnered more than 5,000 signatures.
What pushed many people to sign wasn’t the kiosk itself, which will be roughly the size of a shipping container, but the corporate name that will be affixed to its facade: Starbucks. Some object to giving pride of place to that ubiquitous global brand, especially when Philadelphia is home to excellent local roasters. Others believe the company should be shunned because of the racial-profiling incident that occurred last spring at a Center City Starbucks. Many, however, are simply fed up with the creep of commerce in a public space that is meant to serve as the living room of the city.
Personally, I’m less concerned with who will run the kiosk than who runs Dilworth Park. Even though Starbucks’ name will be prominently displayed on the building, the kiosk will be operated by a local company, Brûlée Catering, which is owned by Spectra (a partner of Comcast Spectacor) and employs several hundred people at its South Philadelphia commissary. Brûlée has been “proudly serving Starbucks coffee” in the cafe at the north end of Dilworth since 2016, and no one has complained.
What the brew-ha-ha over Starbucks is really about is the lack of control over our privately run public spaces. As city officials have spun off downtown parks to private managers — Dilworth, Franklin Square, Sister Cities, the Schuylkill River Trail — the public has been effectively cut out of the decision-making process. We no longer have a direct say in how our parks are managed, particularly the trade-off between commerce and public access.
Paul Levy, who has run the Center City District since 1991, argues there is still plenty of public oversight. He noted in an interview that he ran the Brûlée kiosk by city officials in advance. The design, by DAS and Olin, was also submitted to both the Art Commission and Historical Commission for review. But taking a project through the system, especially one as acquiescent as Philadelphia’s, is not the same as involving the community in setting priorities.
It’s telling that there was no notice of those hearings posted in the park or on the Center City District’s website — a practice required for most building projects. That means only the sort of people who regularly scour commission agendas would have seen the kiosk coming. Because there is no friends group associated with Dilworth, there is no watchdog tracking Levy’s decisions.
The Center City District is also a relatively closed system. Its 23-member board is almost entirely made up of business elites — big property owners, big money people, big real estate developers, and big insurance executives drawn from the district’s service area. Only a single seat is reserved for a community representative. While City Council must approve every appointment, the board has remained strikingly homogeneous. Only 26 percent the current members are people of color, and 23 percent are women, according to numbers provided by Levy.
Perhaps the lack of community voice mattered less when the Center City District’s primary mission was cleaning and patrolling the city’s downtown streets. But in recent years, it has assembled a green empire. Its management portfolio now includes four public spaces — Sister Cities and Cret Park on the Parkway, John F. Collins Park at 17th and Chestnut, and Dilworth. Even the district’s charitable foundation, which raises money for the parks, is dominated by mainly white, mainly male bigwigs.
The district, Levy argued, has other means of ensuring park users are happy. It regularly surveys people in the parks “to find out what they like, what they want more of, ” he said. But Ethan Kent, a vice president with the Project for Public Spaces, observed that parks can’t be truly successful, unless they have “a mechanism for people to feel they’re shaping the outcome.”
There is no denying that the Center City District does a great job of maintaining its parks. You won’t find a speck of litter anywhere. The plantings are lush. And there is always something interesting going on, much of it free, from concerts to yoga.
In fact, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today about a Starbucks kiosk if it weren’t for Paul Levy’s efforts. Up until the district’s takeover in 2011, Dilworth was a derelict space, covered in bird droppings and little used by the public. He had the vision to see that it could become a showplace for the city. Nearly 11 million visitors stopped by last year.
Levy transformed Dilworth by spending lavishly — perhaps too lavishly. Last year, Dilworth’s budget was $4.7 million. To raise that money, the Center City District had to fill the two-block-long plaza with paying activities. Even so, Dilworth recouped only two-thirds of its maintenance costs. The remainder came from the CCD’s own funds, collected through a special assessment on property owners in its catchment, above and beyond what they pay in city taxes. “What we learned at Dilworth,” Levy said, “is that the cost of maintaining a park for 10 million is higher than we thought. We have 24-hour security. We have fountain attendants. It raises the operational costs.” The Starbucks kiosk will add just $60,000 to 80,000 in revenue.
But the more events the Center City District holds, the more money it needs for maintenance. The skating rink is especially destructive. Even though it closed for the season Feb. 24, Levy said the park won’t be ready for use again until April because of repairs to the granite and plumbing systems. That’s a full month of the park being just a passageway through Center City.
Right now, observed Jonas Maciunas, an urban planner who founded JVM Studio, “if the park requires programming, that programming requires revenue, and the need for revenue creates pressure for more commercial activities.” Could Dilworth cut back on some revenue-generating events and come out ahead?
The privatization of city services goes back to the 1980s when many cities were on the verge of bankruptcy because of declining tax revenues. Eager to cut their overhead, they offered generous incentives to private companies to get them to take some of the burdens off their hands. Charter schools and tax abatements were all seen as necessary policies to help cities survive. Now that many cities are on the upswing, we’re beginning to question those Faustian bargains. The outrage over the Starbucks kiosk springs from the same resentments that caused people to rebel against the Amazon deal in New York.
Philadelphia will never entirely get rid of private partnerships; its parks budget isn’t enough to run property still under its own control. Like Dilworth, the city-managed LOVE Park also relies on revenue-generating concessions, including a new restaurant that will open this spring in the former Welcome Center. And like Dilworth, LOVE Park benefited enormously from this year’s Christmas Village, which meant the newly rebuilt park was closed for other uses for nearly a month.
People who object to such closures can always yell and scream at Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council. Who can they complain to about the Starbucks in the privately run Dilworth Park? In the absence of more inclusive community oversight, it’s no wonder Benner took to his blog. More community involvement will not only help the Center City District avoid such public relations stumbles in the future, it will make Dilworth a better park for everyone.