Center City foot traffic rebounds on weekends, still lags on workdays

Weekend pedestrian traffic in downtown Philadelphia during May was 94% of what it was in 2019, according to cell phone data compiled by the Center City District.

Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

There’s far fewer empty retail storefronts in downtown Philadelphia since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic economic slowdown, as foot traffic improves, according to new data released on Monday by the Center City District.

There were more than 318,100 pedestrians in Center City on an average workday in May, about 68% of what foot traffic was in May 2019, according to the Center City District report. 

After 6 p.m. during the workweek, there were still 171,800 pedestrians in Center City, cell phone data collected by shows.

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On an average weekend, there were 310,100 pedestrians downtown, which is 94% of what foot traffic was in 2019.

About 18% of the 1,800 retail locations in Center City were vacant in June, down from 46% in June 2020. But still elevated compared to 11% in June 2019.

Retail occupancy levels in the urban core are on track to fully recover from the economic slowdown tied to the pandemic at the end of the year, the Center City District report forecasts.

But that doesn’t mean there will be the same mix of businesses. For example, several national retail brands are no longer leasing storefronts on Walnut Street such as Gap and Zara.

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“We’ve seen a lot of those spaces, particularly on Walnut Street, backfilled with these digitally native brands, these companies that sort of started out as Instagram ads and are now expanding into bricks and mortar,” said Prema Katari Gupta, a vice president at Center City District.

And if conversations with real estate brokers are any indication about future leasing, the retail outlook is bright.

“My understanding is there’s a healthy pipeline of those to come,” Katari Gupta said.

Beyond that, there’s more experiential retail like specialty fitness centers, spas and recreation like a mini golf venue, she said.

Taxable retail sales in Center City during the first quarter this year are 97% of what was generated during the first quarter 2019.

There have been some Center City retail closures such as several Wawa locations and Target, which cited low performance for several years.

And there’s one key metric that continues to lag behind — commuter foot traffic.

Non-resident worker foot traffic is still 61% of what it was back in May 2019 in Center City. That’s driven by remote work and hybrid schedules.

Economic development officials are hopeful that may change in the coming months as major employers like Comcast told workers to return to the office four days a week, up from three days.

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