Downtown tax district targets crime, grime

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- The natives nicknamed this city "Filthadelphia," no doubt because of the paper bags, cheese steak wrappers, assorted litter and pure grit that seemed as fixed in the cityscape as the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.

But it's time to start working on a new moniker for this place because the old one no longer applies.

Philadelphia's downtown is virtually free of trash, thanks to the work of the Center City District, a "special benefits" district created last year to fight grime and crime and bolster the sagging image of Philadelphia's center city.

"It has made a big difference," said Albert R. Kopsick, giftware manager for a Chestnut Street jewelry store in the heart of the center city retail district. "This street used to be terrible. Before, there was trash everywhere. Now, when someone drops a cigarette butt there is somebody right there to pick it up."

The concept is catching on. More than 1,000 special benefits districts are operating across the nation, and Baltimore may soon have one.

Legislation to establish a district in a 90-block area of downtown Baltimore was introduced in the City Council last week. The district, which proponents say is needed to make downtown cleaner and safer, would be funded with a surcharge on the property tax of 1,100 downtown commercial buildings.

The charge is expected to be 3.2 percent of the property tax bill -- enough to generate $1.7 million a year. The fee would be set by the Board of Estimates if the legislation is successful, as expected. The authority would hope to raise another $300,000 a year from other sources.

Philadelphia's Center City District is one of the largest in the nation with a $6.3 million budget. The district raises money by billing the owners of 2,000 downtown properties 4.5 percent of their property tax.

The money pays for 105 workers who are deployed all day and half the night to sweep sidewalks downtown. At night, work crews clean the back alleys and use mechanical equipment to sweep the sidewalks. Workers scrape handbills and graffiti from utility poles. And once a month, every sidewalk in the district is scrubbed with power steamers. The sanitation crew members earn about $15,000 a year.

The district also employs 40 "community service representatives," cheerful workers in bright teal uniforms who walk a beat armed with walkie-talkies. Trained in first aid and basic crime-fighting techniques and briefed by downtown cultural institutions, they dispense information and tips to pedestrians and serve as eyes and ears for police.

They are paid about $22,000 a year and, like the sanitation crews, are employed by a private firm under contract to the district.

Sharon Welsh, a community service representative who has been on the job for a year, talks proudly, touting museum exhibitions to tourists and even walking people who are lost to their destinations. Once she even assisted a man who was having a seizure on the street.

"This is a good thing," she said. "I enjoy this. I live in the city and have a passion for it. This makes people feel better."

Rosemarie P. Sellari of Nutley, N.J., visited the city for the first time in October. She wandered around downtown looking for a bakery and had no luck until she bumped into a community service representative who radioed headquarters with her request. He then gave her the information.

"To me this was amazing," Ms. Sellari said in a letter to the district.

That kind of work has made Center City Philadelphia a cleaner, friendlier and safer place, according to many observers. Crime in the police division that includes the Center City District was down 14 percent last year. Crime also is down another 5.2 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with last year.

"This is not an effort to replace municipal services," said Paul R. Levy, the district's executive director. "The idea is to supplement, to provide a level of service the government cannot provide."

Mr. Levy sees the districts as a way for big cities to stem the flow of offices and stores to the competition: suburban office parks and malls.

The special benefits district aims to even the competition by creating a controlled downtown environment where pedestrians feel safe and comfortable.

"One of the early criticisms we heard was, 'I already pay too much for taxes and I don't like what I get now. Why should I pay more?' " said Mr. Levy. "But we provide what can be called luxuries for city properties. . . . The malls have these services. So do the landscaped office parks."

Other critics say the downtown districts will sap support for any citywide tax increases that may be needed in the future.

"This certainly could have the effect of undercutting future tax increases," said Dr. Robert B. Hill, director of the Center for Urban Research at Morgan State University. "But I still think these efforts are in the right direction. . . . People are going to oppose general tax increases anyway."

So far the reviews are favorable, surpassing the admittedly low expectations of many Philadelphians.

"The street is much nicer than it was a couple of years ago," said Asi Gola from behind the counter of his Chestnut Street electronics store. "I'm very surprised that it worked."

John A. Weinstein, owner of Costumes by Pierre, a Walnut Street establishment that sells and rents theatrical costumes, pays more than $500 year to the district. But he said the district's services are worth the money.

"It has definitely made a difference," he said. "It has come along when nobody could afford to pay an additional price for something like this, but in the long haul I think it is going to be a key factor in the rejuvenation of the city."

Mr. Weinstein's only complaint is that he thinks the city has not kept its end of the deal. Instead of using its muscle to bolster the district's efforts, particularly in street cleaning and trash removal, the city seems to have cut back these services, he said.

"Unfortunately, the city has slacked on what its responsibility is," Mr. Weinstein said, adding that the city "street sweepers I used to see out front, I don't see anymore."

Last week, Mr. Weinstein said workers for the district discovered 30 plastic bags filled with asbestos that were illegally dumped downtown. As of Friday, he said, the city's only response was to put red tape around the perimeter of the dump site warning people not to go near the hazardous material.

"There is only so much the community can do," he said.

While the district has managed to clean sidewalks and streets and reduce the amount of reported crime, Mr. Levy acknowledges that it has a way to go to reach its ultimate goal of increasing the number of people who work and play in Center City.

Center City bustles by day, but in the evening it is quiet. And homeless men and panhandlers continue to make their rounds -- especially at night -- detracting from the ambience city leaders want to create.

Also, while Philadelphia has a much larger downtown retail district than Baltimore, it is plagued by a vacancy rate that stood at 16.8 percent last year.

"The retail climate nationally has not been good," said Ronald Rubin, chairman of the Center City District's board. "A lot of the downtowns have had problems with vacancies. But we're starting to see people come back in town to the restaurants and shops."

There are other obstacles that are well beyond the control of district officials, including the fact that Philadelphia's sales tax is percentage point higher than it is in the rest of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Levy said the district will begin a promotional campaign in the fall. There are plans to run a campaign to urge people to shop late Wednesday evenings -- a tradition that slowly died with the growth of suburban malls and the perception that downtown is an unsafe and inhospitable place.

"The influence we have is on the quality of the public environment," Mr. Levy said. "And we've improved that. If that in turn improves the retail environment, that's great."

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