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How are downtowns doing? Philly offers clues

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The futures of America's big city downtowns have been in question since the pandemic began due to the mix of remote work, crime and new living patterns. Each city's fate depend on its own assets and vulnerabilities. NPR's Laurel Wamsley takes us now to Philadelphia, which might have some lessons to share.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: It's lunchtime on a weekday afternoon when I meet up with Prema Katari Gupta, CEO of Philadelphia's Center City District.

PREMA KATARI GUPTA: As you can see, our downtown is dead.

WAMSLEY: It's funny because from where we stand, it's obvious this part of downtown is very much alive.

GUPTA: We are standing in Rittenhouse Square, which is one of the great parks in Philadelphia - really large trees, lots of people enjoying what's not even a particularly nice day.

WAMSLEY: One of the reasons to look at Philadelphia is that Gupta's organization has been crunching a lot of data, so the group knows how downtown is doing. They found Philly's office workers are not yet back in full force. But on weekends, the number of people in the Center City is back to 2019 numbers. The area around this park is more residential, though we're just a few blocks away from the city's biggest office buildings.

How would you say the number of folks we see here compares to what it was like in 2019 around now?

GUPTA: I mean, honestly, it feels pretty similar. One of the things that we've been highlighting about Philadelphia's downtown is the mix of uses and users - not just, you know, office monoculture but a place with a lot of residents and visitors and tourists and folks coming into town for a doctor's appointment.

WAMSLEY: We stroll on to Walnut Street, which is lined with upscale retail, and the sidewalks are busy with shoppers. She takes me to the spot where three buildings were burned in the wake of the 2020 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

GUPTA: These burnt down, and you'll see it's now this really beautiful beer garden.

WAMSLEY: What were these buildings before?

GUPTA: One was a McDonalds, and there were two other skinny retail buildings.

WAMSLEY: And now it's a really cool-looking beer garden.

GUPTA: It's beautiful. Look at the flowers, the overhead lights. There's a place for children to play, a little playground in the beer garden. What's the expression? Nature is healing. Like, the city's healing.

WAMSLEY: Philadelphia is benefiting from what turns out to be a major strength in the post-pandemic era - a large population of downtown residents. The Center City District gathered data last fall on this city and 25 other downtowns. One key finding was workers who live closer to the office are more likely to go to it.

TRACY HADDEN LOH: Cities where the average commute time is shorter are having stronger recoveries. The people most likely to return downtown are the people for whom it's a very short trip.

WAMSLEY: Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been studying downtown's recovery. She says for cities to thrive now, they need to allow and encourage their physical environment to adapt to make it possible for cities to transform themselves.

HADDEN LOH: But it's not just about offices, and it's not just about housing. We actually just need to make it easier to turn anything into anything else.

WAMSLEY: Another big trend that's happening is nights and weekends are rebounding faster than weekdays. So while that 9 to 5 is still lower than the before times in most U.S. cities, in some places - including Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston and Charlotte - cellphone data shows that after-hours activity is bigger than it was before.

KAREN CHAPPLE: What you're seeing there, which I think is super-interesting, is the hint of a gradual restructuring of downtown towards more of a social function.

WAMSLEY: Karen Chapple is director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, which has been tracking after-hours data in 66 cities.

CHAPPLE: This is this long after the pandemic, and you're seeing that much of a shift towards nighttime and weekend use - suggests that there is actually a longer-term restructuring that's unfolding before our eyes.

WAMSLEY: One person who's seen the ebb and flow in downtown Philadelphia is Dennis Miller (ph). He's at the door of the boutique clothing store where he works.

DENNIS MILLER: It's not as much business as it used to be. It's tough. We're getting by, though.

WAMSLEY: He says some businesses on the block have closed, and more buildings are becoming residential. Based on one metric, the garage where he parks, Miller thinks those downtown 9-to-5ers are on the upswing.

MILLER: All of the office people are coming back to downtown now 'cause the parking garages are below the office building that I park at, and now it's packed.

WAMSLEY: Back at Rittenhouse Square, I meet Susan West, who's chatting with a friend on a park bench.

Do you live in Downtown?

SUSAN WEST: I do, right over there.

WAMSLEY: She's 80 and has lived downtown for more than a decade, part of a growing trend toward downtown living. In that study of 26 U.S. downtowns, they found that all but one - Phoenix - now had larger downtown populations than they did pre-pandemic. Those downtown residents can help make up for fewer office workers by supporting local businesses around the clock. West says she thinks Philly's downtown is doing all right.

WEST: I think it's fine. I know other people think otherwise, but I think it's doing well, and I hope it will continue.

WAMSLEY: That's the hope for American downtowns - that they will be a place where people from all backgrounds, from the suburbs and the city, can rub elbows as they work, shop and live, perhaps enjoying some outdoor seating that wasn't there before. Laurel Wamsley NPR News, Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF VANESSA CARLTON SONG, "A THOUSAND MILES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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