A Philadel­phia Story

Philadel­phi­ans have stopped apol­o­giz­ing for the City of Broth­erly Love, a place with as­sets that have only got­ten bet­ter over time

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Tom Belden

Philadel­phi­ans have stopped apol­o­giz­ing for the City of Broth­erly Love, a place with as­sets that have only got­ten bet­ter over time

Some­time in the last decade or so, an un­usual phe­nom­e­non gripped many res­i­dents of Philadel­phia and its sub­urbs. Busi­ness and leisure trav­el­ers who were be­com­ing more fre­quent vis­i­tors be­gan to no­tice this strange new thing as well. The Philadel­phi­ans stopped apol­o­giz­ing for their town, at about the same time more vis­i­tors started won­der­ing what took the res­i­dents so long to show more love and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for where they live and what they have.

The phe­nom­e­non co­in­cided with the re­al­iza­tion, some­time around 2003, that Philly, and in par­tic­u­lar its heart, known lo­cally as Cen­ter City, for the first time since the 1950s was no longer los­ing pop­u­la­tion. In de­fi­ance of de­mo­graphic pre­dic­tors galore, it turned out Philadel­phia was not go­ing to be sur­passed by Phoenix as the na­tion’s fifth-largest city. It still hasn’t been over­taken by any Sun­belt up­starts ex­cept Hous­ton.

Eight years ago, the city got an­other big boost in con­fi­dence when National Ge­o­graphic Trav­eler mag­a­zine rec­og­nized the city as more than just a stopover for Am­trak trains speed­ing be­tween NewYork and Wash­ing­ton. In a cover story declar­ing it to be Amer­ica’s“next great city,”Philly was warmly praised for as­sets that have

only got­ten bet­ter over time. The town is over­flow­ing with one of the coun­try’s liveli­est restau­rant scenes; it has a healthy mix of new and old ho­tels, sev­eral given a boost with creative tax schemes; it’s home to world-class art mu­se­ums amidst a host of cul­tural of­fer­ings; it has am­ple parks and green space; it has di­verse neigh­bor­hoods with af­ford­able hous­ing sur­round­ing Cen­ter City; and it re­tains a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its sin­gu­lar place in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Put it all to­gether and you have a com­pact city many busi­ness trav­el­ers ac­tu­ally like to visit. Un­less they are among the dwin­dling num­ber who still en­joy com­plain­ing about Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Air­port or its hub car­rier US Air­ways, vis­i­tors to the city are more likely to re­mem­ber Philly for hav­ing a mod­ern, sprawl­ing Penn­syl­va­nia Con­ven­tion Cen­ter smack in the mid­dle of its cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict, within a few blocks walk of thou­sands of ho­tel rooms. Nei­ther can the vis­i­tor miss that the city’s side­walks are no longer rolled up af­ter dark, a func­tion of the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion that sup­ports a lively cul­tural, din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment scene in Cen­ter City. Only NewYork and Chicago have more peo­ple liv­ing in and around their cen­tral busi­ness dis­tricts than Philadel­phia does.

De­spite the recog­ni­tion it has re­ceived, Philadel­phia doesn’t of­ten come in high on lists of the most pop­u­lar cities for vis­i­tors when it’s up against San Fran­cisco, New York or Wash­ing­ton, DC, or unique places like New Or­leans or Santa Fe – places with global name recog­ni­tion and far more de­vel­oped leisure-travel mar­kets. But Philly is in the top tier of US cities for its cul­tural, ed­u­ca­tional, health care and his­tor­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and for preser­va­tion of much of its 18th- to early 20th-cen­tury cen­tral core. Those qual­i­ties are draw­ing younger res­i­dents, in­clud­ing many who at­tend col­lege in the re­gion and choose to stay af­ter grad­u­a­tion, as well as re­tir­ing Baby Boomers mov­ing from the sub­urbs, help­ing keep the city’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion above the 1.5 mil­lion mark.

“More and more, peo­ple are mov­ing here and stay­ing here,”boasts Philadel­phia Mayor Michael Nut­ter, not­ing that the 2010 US Cen­sus showed that the city had gained res­i­dents for the first time in 60 years.“And from 2010 to 2012, we gained an­other 9,000 peo­ple. Philadel­phia is a cul­tur­ally vi­brant and sus­tain­able place,” notes the Mayor.“It’s a big city and a walk­a­ble city but one that still has a small town feel to it.”

Nut­ter is quick to add that Philadel­phia has been called Amer­ica’s most Euro­pean city, for both some of its ma­jor land­marks and for the look and feel of Cen­ter City neigh­bor­hoods like Wash­ing­ton Square West and So­ci­ety Hill, with their war­rens of small streets of 19th cen­tury homes. “Our City Hall and the Ben­jamin Franklin Park­way re­mind you of Paris,”he says.

All-Amer­i­can As Well

Philadel­phia also has as­pects that could not be more uniquely Amer­i­can. In what is ac­cu­rately called the most his­toric square mile in the coun­try, a few blocks from the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, a na­tion was nur­tured and given birth. In ad­di­tion to icons such as the Lib­erty Bell and In­de­pen­dence Hall, newer at­trac­tions in In­de­pen­dence National His­toric Park in­clude the National Con­sti­tu­tion Cen­ter, the National Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Jewish His­tory, and the Pres­i­dent’s House, a recre­ation of the new na­tion’s first White House, where Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, the“Fa­ther of the Coun­try,”lived in the 1790s with a ret­inue of slaves.

Jack Fer­gu­son, pres­i­dent of the Philadel­phia Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bureau, points to other new de­vel­op­ments that vis­i­tors don’t want to miss. A spec­tac­u­lar new home for the renowned Barnes Foun­da­tion’s Im­pres­sion­ist art col­lec­tion has opened on the Ben Franklin Park­way, a few blocks from the equally classy Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art. The Penn­syl­va­nia Con­ven­tion Cen­ter al­most dou­bled its ex­hi­bi­tion space with a mas­sive ad­di­tion that ex­tended its foot­print to Broad Street, the city’s ma­jor north-south thor­ough­fare, just north of City Hall, the largest mu­nic­i­pal build­ing in the US, and big­ger than the US Capi­tol.

“If you haven’t been to Philly in the last five years, you haven’t been to Philly,”Fer­gu­son says.

First im­pres­sions of a city and re­gion are im­por­tant and Philadel­phia of­fers a mem­o­rable in­tro­duc­tion for many busi­ness trav­el­ers with 30th Street Sta­tion, its hand­some, 80-year-old rail hub on the Schuylkill River at the western end of Cen­ter City. The sta­tion is the third-busiest in Am­trak’s sys­tem, out­paced only by Penn Sta­tion in NewYork and Union Sta­tion in Wash­ing­ton. Be­sides trains vir­tu­ally ev­ery half hour to Bos­ton, NewYork, Wash­ing­ton, the state cap­i­tal in Har­ris­burg, Pa., and other East Coast points, 30th Street bus­tles with com­muter traf­fic on half a dozen sub­ur­ban rail routes op­er­ated by SEPTA, the re­gional trans­porta­tion au­thor­ity. One of the sub­ur­ban rail lines con­nects PHL air­port to the rest of re­gion, with trains ev­ery 30 min­utes.

In part due to its lo­ca­tion, the sta­tion sup­ports a va­ri­ety of eater­ies and re­tail stores. Be­sides serv­ing rail pas­sen­gers, the ser­vices are con­ve­nient to the bur­geon­ing Univer­sity City area west of the Schuylkill and Cen­ter City, what Fer­gu­son calls“the smart side of town.” That means it’s home to Drexel Univer­sity, the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, some of the world’s most renowned med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and nu­mer­ous other sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cally ori­ented en­ter­prises. Fer­gu­son points out that the re­gion was helped through the re­ces­sion by hav­ing a di­verse econ­omy, led by“eds and meds,” re­fer­ring to col­leges, med­i­cal schools, hos­pi­tals and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies that are the lead­ing em­ploy­ers.

PHL Gain­ing Al­ti­tude

Roughly eight miles south­west of Cen­ter City, Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Air­port is squeezed be­tween the Delaware River and In­ter­state 95 and has all of the good fea­tures, and a few of the headaches, of both a do­mes­tic hub and an in­ter­na­tional con­nect­ing gate­way for di­rect flights to Europe and the Caribbean. US Air­ways’ hub op­er­a­tion and ser­vice by most other do­mes­tic car­ri­ers and a hand­ful of for­eign ones makes PHL a con­ve­nient place to reach from vir­tu­ally ev­ery large- and mid-sized US city and a dozen in Europe. US Air­ways has about two-thirds of the air­port’s flights and pas­sen­gers, and cur­rently op­er­ates 460 daily de­par­tures to 85 des­ti­na­tions. Un­like the NewYork and Wash­ing­ton ar­eas with their mul­ti­ple air­ports, PHL is the only ma­jor air field in a catch­ment area of six mil­lion peo­ple.

In an­other de­vel­op­ment that should make Philadel­phi­ans op­ti­mistic, US Air­ways CEO Doug Parker has de­clared that the air­line’s PHL op­er­a­tion will stay in­tact as a do­mes­tic and sec­ondary in­ter­na­tional hub if his car­rier suc­ceeds in its plan to merge with Amer­i­can Air­lines. In fact, noted Mark Gale, the air­port’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, US Air­ways wants to add to its in­ter­na­tional ser­vice with its ap­pli­ca­tion to start the first non­stop flights from Philly to Brazil. The air­line also has long had am­bi­tions to fly non­stop to China, Ja­pan, South Korea or all three from PHL, Gale says.

De­spite skep­ti­cism by some air­line in­dus­try an­a­lysts, there’s a lot of logic be­hind what Parker, who will be CEO of the new Amer­i­can if the merger goes through, has promised for PHL. Amer­i­can has only 100 or so daily de­par­tures to US and in­ter­na­tional cities from NewYork’s slot-con­trolled Kennedy Air­port, 100 miles north­east of PHL. There sim­ply isn’t room at JFK, in the sky or on the ground, for much of the con­nect­ing traf­fic now flow­ing over Philly. Just over 55 per­cent of the hub’s traf­fic is lo­cal, start­ing or end­ing flights in the Philadel­phia area, with the rest con­nect­ing pas­sen­gers headed to or from Europe or points along the East Coast.

What’s more, since Parker’s old Amer­ica West Air­lines took over US Air­ways in 2004, US Air­ways has made good on prom­ises to im­prove what he ac­knowl­edged was em­bar­rass­ingly bad cus­tomer ser­vice, de­liv­ered by a dis­grun­tled Philadel­phia work force. The air­port’s rep­u­ta­tion suf­fered for years from both the ser­vice prob­lems and a lo­ca­tion that can cause flight delays, jammed onto a swampy 2,000-acre site with limited run­way ca­pac­ity and sand­wiched be­tween the NewYork and Wash­ing­ton air-traf­fic con­trol ar­eas.

The city-owned air­port has done its part to over­come the prob­lems, spend­ing about $1 bil­lion in rev­enue from pas­sen­gers and air­lines over a decade on in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments. Gale ticked off a list of the up­grades, in­clud­ing adding a new in­ter­na­tional ter­mi­nal, up­grades to much of is bag­gage-han­dling fa­cil­i­ties, larger se­cu­rity check­points, ad­di­tional restau­rants and re­tail stores, an ex­panded gate area for South­west Air­lines, an en­larged con­ces­sions area in its com­muter con­course used by US Air­ways Ex­press, an on­go­ing pro­ject to re­build ev­ery air­port re­stroom and, com­ing soon, a new bag­gage-claim build­ing for the com­muter ter­mi­nal.

Stay­ing and Eat­ing

The area around Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional has the usual col­lec­tion of ho­tels op­er­ated by the big chains, but Cen­ter City is home to busi­ness trav­el­ers’fa­vorite lodg­ings. At the top end is The Rit­ten­house Ho­tel, the 93-room lux­ury-bou­tique leader, with its prime lo­ca­tion on Rit­ten­house Square, along with the Four Sea­sons, in an­other fine spot on the Park­way at Lo­gan Cir­cle, and the Ritz-Carl­ton, a can’t-miss-it for­mer bank build­ing across the street from City Hall and at the top of the Av­enue of the Arts (South Broad Street).

Nip­ping at the heels of those lux­ury lead­ers are two re­cently opened Kimp­ton ho­tels, the Palo­mar and the Monaco, both of them in re­habbed early 20th-cen­tury of­fice build­ings. The Monaco, at 5th and Ch­est­nut Streets, is off to an es­pe­cially fast start since it opened in late 2012 and is al­ready ranked No. 2 (be­hind the Palo­mar) in pop­u­lar­ity on TripAd­vi­sor for Philly ho­tels. Among the prin­ci­pal con­ven­tionori­ented ho­tels are the Philadel­phia Mar­riott and the Loews Philadel­phia.

Among other Cen­ter City bou­tiques, trav­el­ers like The Alexan­der Inn, the re­cently ren­o­vated Latham Ho­tel, The In­de­pen­dent and the Mor­ris House Ho­tel. Among chain of­fer­ings, the new­est is Le Meri­dien, just a block from the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. An­other peren­nial fa­vorite, the Hil­ton Inn at Penn, is in a lively re­tail zone in Univer­sity City, ad­ja­cent to the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. An­other long­time fa­vorite, the Omni at In­de­pen­dence Park, oc­cu­pies a prime cor­ner in Old City.

For those at a Con­ven­tion Cen­ter event with an hour for lunch, life’s big­gest dilemma could be: Do we walk a block or two east, where we will find dozens of Asian restau­rants in the city’s Chi­na­town sec­tion, or do we drop down to the cen­ter’s ground level for a stroll through the Read­ing Ter­mi­nal Mar­ket, among the na­tion’s old­est con­tin­u­ously op­er­at­ing farm­ers’mar­ket, with dozens of choices for sand­wiches, sal­ads, pasta, cheese steaks or, just in case, Chi­nese. Un­less the big­gest chal­lenge is how to keep from overindulging at lunch be­cause you know the op­por­tu­ni­ties abound for a sub­lime din­ner at one of the city’s up­scale restau­rants.

For some­one who lived in Philadel­phia for decades and now re­turns oc­ca­sion­ally for vis­its, the dilemma for this writer is whether to dine in some of my long­time fa­vorite es­tab­lish­ments or try some of the more cel­e­brated new eater­ies. Among the city’s most highly re­gard restau­rants are the din­ing rooms of two of the best ho­tels: The Foun­tain at the Four Sea­sons and La Croix at the Rit­ten­house. In the same high­end ter­ri­tory is Vetri, the pre­mier restau­rant of Marc Vetri, one of Philly’s culi­nary stars, and Le Bec Fin, a pre­mier French restau­rant now un­der new man­age­ment.

Among celebrity chef Stephen Starr’s ever-ex­pand­ing ar­ray of restau­rants, many din­ers love Parc, on Rit­ten­house Square, a stun­ning recre­ation of a Paris bistro. Il Pi­torre is a newer, well-pa­tron­ized spe­cial­ist in great pasta dishes, in city over­flow­ing with ex­cel­lent Ital­ian din­ing. On lower Mar­ket Street, Fork con­tin­ues to get rave re­views. Among long­time neigh­bor­hood fa­vorites is Stan­dard Tap in the North­ern Lib­er­ties area, with both burg­ers and a wide rang­ing num­ber of daily spe­cials. In the Fair­mount sec­tion just north of the Art Mu­seum, the old­stand­bys, Lon­don and Rem­brandt’s, are still pop­u­lar with lo­cals more than three decades af­ter their open­ing.

Trav­el­ers to Philadel­phia can find more in­for­ma­tion at dis­cov­er­phl.com or vis­it­philly.com. BT

Op­po­site page: Ben­jamin Franklin Park­way, Love Park Right: The Lib­erty Bell, Pres­i­dent’s House and the Acad­emy of Fine Arts build­ing

Op­po­site page: In­de­pen­dence Hall, His­toric Philadel­phia Cen­ter, Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Air­port Above : The Rit­ten­house Ho­tel Left : Ritz Carl­ton Ho­tel

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