Center City District’s new CEO wants to bring commuters back

The new leader of an influential Center City economic development organization is pushing for more companies to bring back commuters.

Prema Katari Gupta posing for a photo

Prema Katari Gupta is the President and CEO of the Center City District. (CCD)

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About 100,000 people commute into Center City Philadelphia during an average work week.

Prema Katari Gupta, the new CEO of Philadelphia’s Center City District, is one of those commuters.

The 45-year-old Mount Airy resident wants to encourage tens of thousands more commuters to join her working in Center City. She uses her daily commute to read books without distractions.

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“I’m in the office every day,” Katari Gupta said. “I refer to my 25 minute train ride as the best part of my day because I decompress and read fiction.”

Right now, she’s reading The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff. It’s a dark comedy mystery thriller about a “group of women in a village in India who take the patriarchy into their own hands,” she said.

Katari Gupta was inspired to read for about an hour a day when she heard that former president Barack Obama took up the habit.

“I thought to myself, well, if he can find the time to do that and be president, then I can find time to read every day,” she said.

In January, she became the CEO of Center City District, an influential economic development organization.

Paul Levy, its founder in the early 1990s, took a step back from day-to-day operations in late December 2023.

But 76-year-old Levy is still advocating for Center City and is active as a non-executive chair of the board.

He won’t be far outside of Katari Gupta’s circle of influence either.

“I am incredibly grateful to consider him a mentor and a friend,” she said.

As a leader, she described herself as a ‘low-key technocrat,’ and she’s most comfortable keeping her head down and focused on “getting the job done.”

Katari Gupta has served in executive roles for years, working on economic development projects in University City, Center City and the Navy Yard. She said she strives to empower her team and leads with a quiet confidence style of being organized, creative and collaborative.

“I lead from the heart,” she said. “I love the people of [Center City District] and I love this city. I want to tie it all together so we can make a big impact.”

The district employs dozens of street cleaners, community service representatives and even unarmed security patrol members.

Getting all workers back into the office is an economic development issue that Katari Gupta is focused on.

“I worry that too much working remotely will lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness,” she said. “How do we reframe the commute?”

As more workers return to the office, they could better appreciate the value of a vibrant downtown with restaurants, art and night life after work outside of their immediate neighborhood, she said. Too often, communities are segregated from each other and don’t mingle.

“I think that one of the really compelling things about downtown is that it’s where everyone interacts with people who have different lives,” she said. “That’s a really special thing to preserve.”

Significant growth of neighborhoods nearby Center City, like Northern Liberties and Fishtown, contributes to its foot traffic and isn’t unwelcome competition, she said.

“Downtown is successful because of how many people live within walking distance of it,” she said. “We see a direct correlation between the length of your commute and the extent to which you’re back into the office.”

There are about 45 million square feet of office space across Center City. According to commercial real estate data, the vacancy rate for office buildings downtown was about 17% during the fourth quarter of 2023.

Gupta said she’s optimistic that about 73% of commuters have returned to Center City in 2023, compared to 2019.

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“We think that the number of workers coming back will continue to climb,” she said.

That’s because allowing employees to work remotely is less popular among employers with big Center City offices like Comcast and Independence Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Even Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker issued a mandate for city workers to return to the office. Parker pitched the same idea to Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce business members last week.

The goal is that with more commuter foot traffic, retail activity will follow.

In 2019, about 89% of storefronts across Center City were occupied by businesses. In 2020, that dipped down to 40% during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdowns.

“People think we have not recovered from that,” Katari Gupta said.

But the city’s retail market has bounced back. In 2023, Center City storefront occupancy rebounded to 85%, according to the Center City District.

“But we’re doing great,” she said.

In the coming months, the new CEO said she wants to tackle public safety in Center City.

“To the extent that we can move the needle through new partnerships, that would be tremendous,” she said.

Over the years, the district has added bike patrols and expanded its homelessness outreach workers. In general, the district found serious crimes were down by 5% in Center City in 2023 compared to 2019.

But there are still complaints about quality of life issues.

“People are shaping their impressions of what’s going on downtown based on vibes,” she said.

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