Downtown pedestrian traffic rebounds, but office occupancy remains low

While foot traffic from residents and visitors is enjoying a healthy recovery from its lows during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, office buildings are still quite vacant. These effects can be felt in the retail, restaurant and hospitality sectors.

the Philadelphia Center Development Corporation hosted a discussion on Tuesday about how the city is operating at this point in the pandemic when vaccines are plentiful, but cases continue to rise and fall. Paul Levy, President and CEO of Downtown district; Joel Dales, Deputy Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department; and Jody Holton, SEPTA the Deputy Director General of Planning and Strategic Initiatives, shared what they saw in their respective agencies.

The city still doesn’t see the same number of workers, residents or visitors in its downtown as it did before the pandemic, Levy said. Earlier this year, data based on pedestrian volumes at 20 locations in the heart of Center City showed daily averages rose to 103,296 people in April from 91,574 people per day downtown in October 2020.

In October 2021, downtown had nearly 150,000 daily pedestrians, some of the highest numbers since the start of the pandemic. But where these pedestrians spend time shows a picture.

Daily pedestrians in October 2021. (Image via CPDC)

Retail corridors along Chestnut, Walnut and Sansom streets saw a return to semi-normal levels with people visiting stores and restaurants, but Market Street and JFK Boulevard – where many Center office buildings City are grouped – haven’t had the same comeback. These areas welcome about half of the visitors at 2019 levels.

Levy told attendees that while vaccines have allowed businesses to call their employees back to work, downtown office building occupancy levels currently stand at around 30% to 40% of their pre-COVID-19 levels. pandemic. Before 2020, buildings had a vacancy rate of around 11%, but it’s around 18.5% today, he said.

“Those who are in buildings right now are the people who can’t work remotely,” Levy said.

Outside the city center, in nearby areas like Northern Liberties or Queen Village, restaurants and retail stores operate at around 81% of their taxable income, indicating that people are spending their money closer to home than the center -city.

Holton said while SEPTA ridership is still down from its pre-pandemic rates, it is growing. The agency has reinforced its cleaning protocols and its air circulation system guarantees clean air in vehicles every two to three minutes. There have been no outbreaks related to ridership, and its use will play an important role in getting back to offices, she said.

Many factors are at play, Levy said, but a safe return to offices will play a role in the city’s economic stability as we learn to live with COVID-19.

“If you walk around downtown and take a look at the bars and restaurants, you’ll find that people aren’t afraid to be there,” Levy said. “So, what’s the hesitation with offices?” Social distancing is easy to achieve and suffice it to say, if we want a competitive city that works to reduce poverty, it’s time to bring office workers back to the office.

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