A city of jobs Meccas, and deserts

by pkerkstra on September 9, 2012

This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 8, 2012.

Center City is the spoiled golden child of Philadelphia: always getting the accolades, the extra allowance, and all that special attention from Mom (City Hall) and Dad (the media).

Understandably enough, this can make the other neighborhoods a bit jealous. Where’s our Sister Cities Park? asks Fairhill. Why does murder seem to matter more when it happens in Center City? wonders Kingsessing.

Those are fair questions. But the disparity in treatment between the city’s neighborhoods and its core isn’t going away any time soon, and for good reasons.

Center City is the most essential neighborhood in Philadelphia, and its success over the last 15 or 20 years is arguably the biggest reason the city as a whole hasn’t followed Detroit into the urban afterlife.

This case is convincingly made in a new report on private-sector employment released Thursday by the Center City District.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that Philadelphia has far too few jobs, and that it continues to shed those it has at an alarming clip. More on that in a bit.

More interesting is the report’s finding that fully 38 percent of all private-sector jobs in Philadelphia are located in Center City’s 2.8 square miles. An additional 11 percent are directly adjacent to Center City, in the Penn-and-Drexel-fueled University City area. Some jobs are found at Temple University and at the Navy Yard, but otherwise the city is something of a jobless wasteland, with little work beyond neighborhood retail and some small-scale manufacturing.

Here’s another gobsmacking figure the Center City District calculated: There are 129 jobs per acre in Center City, and an average of just 4 per acre in the rest of Philadelphia.

In other words, Center City is far more than a collection of restaurants and expensive condos. It’s an economic engine that powers literally every neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Paul Levy, the politically crafty executive director of the Center City District, chose to illustrate this finding by slicing and dicing the jobs numbers into City Council districts, the better to show Council members just how much Center City matters to their constituents.

In the far-flung 10th District in Northeast Philadelphia, 11 percent of all private-sector workers commute to Center City jobs. Twenty percent of workers in West Philadelphia’s Third Council District work in Center City, as do 18 percent of the Eighth District, in the Northwest.

Even so, Levy isn’t using this study to push for still more public investment in Center City (not that he’d mind, of course, particularly if it were centered on transit). He’s sensitive to the “gigantic disparities” that exist between rough and blighted neighborhoods and the gleaming downtown.

Rather, Levy is lobbying – not for the first time – for changes to the city’s tax structure. In short, he (and plenty of others, including the mayor’s last tax reform commission) wants to reduce business and wage taxes, and increase property taxes.

What does that have to do with jobs? Everything, according to Levy.

And that, really, is what this study endeavors to prove. For all of Center City’s energy, for all its appeal to a millennial set that loves cities and can take or leave cars, downtown on its own doesn’t have nearly enough jobs to support Philadelphia.

Nearly 193,000 city residents commute to the burbs every day, a figure that will surprise no one who has ever traveled west on the Schuylkill Expressway during the morning rush hour.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with city residents commuting to the suburbs. But 193,000 is a huge number, nearly 42 percent of all working Philadelphians.

The risk to the city, of course, is that residents who work in the suburbs might ultimately choose to live there, and indeed that seems to be part of what’s behind the ongoing exodus of Philadelphia’s black middle class.

Is tax reform really the answer? Perhaps in part. But Levy knows better than anyone else that Center City’s appeal to employers is born of its vibrancy, its mixed-use amenities, its terrific transit connections. Surely other neighborhoods would be creating more jobs if they had similar advantages.

And that’s to say nothing of the dismal performance of city schools, which troubles many employers at least as much as the tax situation.

Building infrastructure, though, is a decades-long proposition, and an expensive one. Getting the schools into shape could take just as long. Changing the tax mix? If Levy has his way – and he often does – that could be accomplished far sooner.

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