In the past 22 years, Center City has done a complete 180. Talk to people who lived, worked, or visited the downtown region in the 1980s, when I was a kid, and they’ll tell you how positively apocalyptic it was, with trash and graffiti everywhere.

Your average Philadelphian might not know whom to thank for this. And granted, you’d have to write quite a few notes, but you’d be sure to send one over to Paul Levy and the team running the Center City District. King among the city’s business improvement districts, the CCD has dramatically improved our experience of Philadelphia’s downtown. It’s done so by focusing on four basic ideas – that Philadelphia should be “clean, safe, beautiful and fun.”

I would argue that of those, “clean” has been the most important, because without it, none of the other three could exist.

It’s also expensive.

This year, the Center City District plans to spend $20 million on improvements for the 233 blocks and more than 1,500 properties within its boundaries.

Of that, $4.36 million will go toward cleaning and maintenance services, from sidewalk sweeping and power washing to graffiti removal. Through contracts with SEPTA and the City of Philadelphia, an additional $3.19 million will be spent on cleaning services in the subway concourses and two regional rail stations, covering 3.5 miles of underground.

That puts the grand total spent on cleaning services at $7.54 million.

Levy says it’s more than worth it.

“There are no panaceas – you’ve got to pay for the public life,” said Levy, who is the founding chief executive of CCD. “Fundamentally dense, mixed-use commercial districts are going to get dirty and you simply need to budget and maintain the public environment.”

I would agree. But I can’t help but notice that despite all that money and effort, Center City still has a trash problem. Take a rambling route through the city and you’ll spot litter all over the place. It’s not an uncommon sight to see drink bottles left atop our overtaxed BigBelly trash compactors, along with other waste piling beside. Pedestrians taking a walk down the 1300 block of Sansom St, which is flourishing with bar and restaurant activity, still have to dodge dumpsters on the sidewalk, discarded shipping pallets, and West Elm’s unsightly loading zone.

I watched a businessman casually leave an entire bag of trash on a park bench in Rittenhouse Square while enjoying lunch there in the summer. The tree pits outside the World Communications Charter School at the corner of Broad and South Street are also often littered with disposable waste.

Litterers leave trash on top of receptacles

Litterers leave trash on top of receptacles

Levy says littering behavior is not always the main cause.

“People definitely litter less on sidewalks that are clean,” said Levy. “People dropping things on the street is not always the major contributor, except for cigarette butts. It’s an overflowing commercial dumpster; a newsstand that fails to tie up its newspapers and they blow in the wind; a mentally ill person rummaging through trash cans.”

It’s true that litter does not always come directly from the hands of people, and there are other systems at play in generating waste. Still, I often wonder what our downtown would look like if the CCD’s cleanup workforce just disappeared for two weeks. My guess is that it would quickly start to resemble my neighborhood in Germantown, or that time when sanitation workers went on strike in 1986 (I was too young to remember, but I’ve heard nasty tales).

There are other ways to reduce the “stream of things that wind up as trash,” as Levy put it. Enforcing sanitation laws would help to ease the burden – and preventing litter surely would be less expensive than cleaning it up. Enforcement and prevention are not our strong suit.

Imagine how likely people would be to litter if culprits received tickets on the street, as frequently as the Philadelphia Parking Authority leaves tickets on windshields.

You can’t help but be impressed with the Center City District’s accomplishments, which extend far beyond its role in keeping the downtown clean. The CCD has played a major role in shaping our public spaces and built environment, exemplifying the extent to which public-private partnership can enhance city life. Take for example, the District-managed Sister Cities Park, the second best thing to pop-up on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in years. Or, the high-profile Dilworth Plaza project now underway in the footprint of City Hall.

But it’s the little things that are perhaps the most important, if you’re talking about the growth of Philadelphia citywide. The CCD has set precedent for all the other BIDs and community development corporations now revitalizing and cleaning up other parts of the city. Consider the success of University City District to the west and Old City District to east. Any neighborhood that can afford to is shelling out big bucks to stay clean. Everyone knows clean streets pay dividends.

I think this raises a question of responsibility. Is this another example of local government’s reliance on private organizations and citizens to supplement basic city services? What happens in low-income neighborhoods that can’t afford the basics? Neighborhood inequality is visible in garbage on the streets.

In the Northwest, Councilwoman Cindy Bass and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce has convened a steering committee to re-establish the Germantown Special Services District, whose primary focus is cleaning the bustling but distressed Chelten Avenue and Germantown Avenue commercial corridor. According to draft plans presented last week, the budget for the first year of operation is estimated to be $178,176, with $78,913 allocated to cleaning and maintenance. The SSD will serve 232 businesses, covering 2.5 square miles. The general consensus among steering committee members is that tackling trash is where it all begins. It’s worth noting that the Germantown Special Services District’s proposed budget is less than 1% of the Center City District’s.

As a member of Philadelphia’s civic world, it’s easy to see that the Center City District has become a sort of father figure to leaders across the city, and I think it’s great that Philadelphians can find sources of inspiration at home. But given CCD’s larger success, it still seems unfortunate that 25% of CCD revenues go toward just picking up the trash. The quality of life improvement is no doubt worth it for urban dwellers, but is it the smartest use of energy and resources?

What if we used some of that money to invest in research and planning for how to address the sources of the problem – re-evaluating trash collection from businesses and residences, reducing waste and maximizing recycling overall through legislation, and exploring alternatives for dumpsters on downtown streets? What if, by doing so, we came up with solutions that could be replicated in less wealthy neighborhoods?

Substantial financial investment is perhaps the most important factor driving success of the CCD. As business improvement districts and community development corporations around the city aspire to mirror the Center City District’s results, we need to step back and recognize that every neighborhood-based group will not grow into a machine as powerful. And nor should that be necessary.

Five-minute retrospective on the founding of the Center City District

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Just how extensive are the Center City District’s maintenance services?

An excerpt from the 2013-2017 Plan and Budget for Center City District, published in June 2012 –

Cleaning and Maintenance

The CCD deploys 60 uniformed sweepers, mechanical equipment operators and supervisors on two overlapping shifts, seven days per week, providing up to 12 hours of services per day. CCD crews supplement the sanitation services of the City of Philadelphia and ensure that Center City’s sidewalks are clean and its streetscape graffiti-free. Seasonally, a team of pressure washers provide weekly pressure washing services throughout the CCD. The City’s Streets Department cleans the streets from curb to curb, empties public trash receptacles and enforces sanitation laws. Through a competitively selected contractor, the CCD assists property owners in fulfilling their legal obligation to keep their sidewalks free of litter and debris. This supplementary program is comprised of six components:

• Mechanical sweeping: Sidewalks and related public areas are mechanically swept early each morning to ensure that downtown routinely “opens clean.”

• Daily, recurring manual and mechanical sweeping: Daily manual and mechanical sweeping of all sidewalks and related public areas at least three times throughout the working day by uniformed cleaners ensures that the central business district remains attractive and clean.

• Evening cleaning: In recognition of the increased evening pedestrian activity and residential population, the CCD provides an early evening shift in prime entertainment and dining areas in warm weather months.

• Monthly power washing: The CCD provides high-pressure washing twice a month, except in winter, to remove accumulated stains, gum and grime from all sidewalks.

• Graffiti removal: To improve the appearance of downtown, maintenance crews remove posters and stickers and remove or paint over graffiti on streetscape furniture and the ground floor of building facades.

• Fee for Service: At no expense to District property owners, an additional team of sixty cleaners and supervisors maintain the 3.5 miles of underground transit concourse and two regional rail stations through contracts with SEPTA and the City of Philadelphia. CCD employs 8 additional cleaners and 3 supervisors to clean six areas adjacent to the CCD, which are also maintained through similar contractual relationships at no cost to District owners. The CCD also provides employment opportunities for disadvantaged workers, such as formerly homeless individuals and those making the transition from welfare to work, performing maintenance services within the CCD and staffing fee-for-service contracts.

Further Reading

The Drexel Law Review- Business Improvement Districts and the Evolution of Urban Governance

Business Improvement Districts in Philadelphia: A Practitioner’s Perspective 
By Paul Levy: PDF (153 KB)

Center City District: A Case of Comprehensive Downtown BIDs
By Göktuğ Morçöl: PDF (161 KB)