Center City closing in on pandemic recovery, report finds

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Center City’s businesses is nearing a full recovery, as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic appear to be waning, according to a new report.

Sales are close to pre-COVID-19 heights, and foot traffic is up, according to the study, released Thursday by the Center City District, a business organization that promotes the area.

Storefront vacancies in the city’s urban core are dwindling, with dozens of shops, restaurants and attractions slated to open before the end of the year.

“It’s a good sign,” CCD President Paul Levy told Metro. “We’re feeling very good about the direction in which things are going.”

CCD’s report is based on numbers from 20 pedestrian counters; cellphone location tracking data; staff inspecting commercial properties; state sales tax revenue; and discussions with real estate brokers.

On an average day, more than 346,000 pedestrians filter through Center City’s streets, down about 16% from the total prior to the pandemic, according to data used by the CCD.

The streetery at Kalaya.Mike Prince

Levy said the company analyzes anonymous phone data to make determinations about whether people are downtown residents, visitors or workers.

Using that model, the number of tourists and shoppers has just about matched pre-pandemic levels, while just over half of office workers have returned. Still, three month ago, only about 37% of employees were back, Levy noted.

“We see it with Center City SIPS,” he added, referring to the district’s popular Wednesday evening happy hours. “The volume of young people coming back out again is really strong.”

Just over 360 storefronts are shuttered within the CCD’s boundaries, but 42 of those are expected to be filled before the end of December, the study says.

The area’s vacancy rate, which spiked to 45% two years ago, stands at 17%, according to the report. Before COVID-19, it was 11%.

Some of the neighborhood’s larger retail establishments are being leased by businesses that focus more on entertainment.

For example, U.K.-based Puttshack, which describes itself as an “upscale, tech-infused mini golf experience with global food and drink,” is moving into the Shops at Liberty Place.

In addition, Barcade is planning to open a location near Broad and Chestnut streets. The alcohol-serving arcade chain currently operates a spot in Fishtown.

“It’s always sad when an old retailer goes bankrupt or closes their store, but there’s a really healthy volume of new retailers coming into the market,” Levy said.

Center City retail sales, as judged by tax records, are down just 5% from pre-pandemic numbers, though the margin is 26% for restaurant revenue, the study found.

Meanwhile, streeteries and sidewalk cafes, a staple of pandemic life in Center City, continue to thrive. Though the number of outdoor seats has dropped since last year, there are still more than 1,500 additional seats compared to 2019, according to the report.

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