Center City seeing more foot traffic, but business district still working to draw back employees to the office

A recent survey of Philly businesses showed workers seem to be taking a stand against returning to the office full time.

An ambulance driving on a major road in Philly.

An ambulance drives West on Market Street in Center City, Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A new report from the Philadelphia Center City District shows some optimistic signs of business returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity.

The number of people walking the streets of Philadelphia continues to rise, according to a review of blind cell phone data and pedestrian counters. 

“We know that visitor levels– that’s tourists, conventioneers, shoppers, etc.– are up to 79% of where they were in February of 2020, and at 90% on weekends,” said Paul Levy, who heads up the CCD.

The biggest issue is the slow return of workers to Center City office buildings. The city is experiencing an 18% office vacancy rate compared to 12% pre-pandemic.

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Levy said some workers don’t want to return to the office, or don’t want to do so five days a week. He said a survey by CCD shows that workers seem to be taking a stand against a return to the office full time. Many companies are not going to lose a worker over it.

In order to bring more people back into the office, Levy said companies are offering incentives, such as paid parking or luncheons on Mondays and Friday, when many people would normally work from home. He added that the CCD is also developing concerts and other events in the office district to bring people in on days when they don’t see coming into the office as essential.

“We’re about to begin a series of events in the office district at the end of the day. You know, concerts and gathering activities for office workers to make the places that surround office buildings as exciting as employers need to make the insides of their buildings.”

The survey of 64 companies who responded showed 76% of their workers were in the office at least three days a week; 9% were in four days per week and 23% were in five days per week. None were fully remote.

The top two benefits cited by respondents for increasing in-office work was “the value of face-to-face meetings for collaboration with colleagues” and “better ability to mentor staff.”

The report, entitled “Downtown Vitality: A Deeper Look Into Office Trends”, also showed occupancy levels in Center City office buildings declined from 87% in 2019 to approximately 81% at the end of the first quarter of 2023, which is much less than in other places in the country.

Levy also cited an increase in conversion of former office space into residential space as a way the city is increasing foot traffic, and believes more of those conversions will come if companies don’t rent out the vacant office space.

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