Philadelphia leaders say downtown is safe and open for business

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Philadelphia leaders have pushed back against the narrative that Center City is a dangerous place after Wawa cited safety concerns when he announced Thursday that he was closing two downtown locations.

Mayor Jim Kenney played down the closures, saying he “doesn’t think it’s a bad omen at all,” noting that downtown has become increasingly busy as Philadelphia’s economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

“These two particular places have some issues that they had to deal with that were costing them money, and it wasn’t really worth keeping them open,” Kenney told reporters. at a press conference on Friday morning. “We are really satisfied with our relationship with Wawa. They’ve been involved in everything we’ve been doing since [the July 4 celebration] Wawa welcomes America to the Police Athletic League and all that stuff.

Wawa’s decision to close downtown stores comes after Starbucks announced in July the closure of its 10th and Chestnut Streets store, as well as 15 other stores elsewhere in the country. The coffee giant also cited public safety concerns as a factor.

Paul Levy, who runs Downtown, said while it was disappointing that Wawa was closing both stores — one at 12th and Market Streets, and the other at 19th and Market Streets — the post-pandemic resurgence of downtown Philadelphia continues.

Before the pandemic, 88% of downtown retail space was occupied, Levy said, whose organization provides sidewalk sweeping and other services financed by a tax on downtown businesses. That figure dropped to 54% following city-ordered business closures in 2020, and has since rebounded to 83% occupancy.

“Anyone closing like that is not good news, and Wawa is obviously a major regional corporate presence that is very valuable to the city in many ways,” Levy said. “But I don’t think it happens in a purely isolated way. I think there are business trends. I think there are other tendencies they are reacting to.

Despite the gun violence crisis that has led to a record rate of shootings and homicides, downtown remains a safe place to eat, shop and work, Levy said.

Not all city officials are so optimistic. In a statement to The Inquirer earlier this week ahead of the announced closures, City Councilman Mike Driscoll said he was concerned ‘the ongoing violence and sense of lawlessness at this time is likely to drive any size business to consider its future role and position in our city.”

“I believe Wawa was the latest expression of that concern after the recent incident they had in my district and before in downtown,” Driscoll said.

Major crime has increased by 9% in the city center in the first seven months of this year compared to the same period in 2019, a combination of incidents such as murders, assaults, burglaries and robberies, according to an Inquirer analysis of urban crime data.

The Downtown District has raised $600,000 to launch a team of unarmed bicycle patrol security officers and to bolster its outreach services for homeless people, all in hopes the public will feel safer downtown.

Philadelphians who shop or work near the two closing Wawas said the downtown crime debate is less important than the loss of a store that played a major role in their lives. For them, Wawa’s decision to close felt like a betrayal.

Mark Bolt, a street vendor who sells clothes at 10th and Market, said Wawa’s retirement could create “a chain reaction” among nearby business owners, who he said should stick together for difficult times.

“Once Wawa closes, it will give Marshalls a reason to say ‘we’re closing,’ too,” Bolt said. “It’s the wrong decision. They need to hire more security and show some strength.

On Friday afternoon, three mothers pushing strollers outside 12th and Market said the branch was part of their daily routine downtown. “They love our kids here,” said Antoinette Thornton. “We come here to eat and we’re sad they’re closing.”

Brittany Koch said that although thefts and minor nuisances around the store are common, closing the huge corner store would only bring more trouble to East Market.

“How is this going to make the city safer? Yeah, I see someone stealing a drink or two, but they stop them and take the drink out of their hands,” Koch said. “It’s nothing I think you need to close an entire store.”

In announcing the closures, Wawa did not discuss the volume of criminal incidents at the two targeted stores.

But incident data at Wawa stores across the city shows these locations weren’t the most crime-hit. In the past two years, police reported 42 incidents around the Wawa at 19th and Market, 34 of which were thefts, while the Wawa at 12th and Market had 19 reported incidents, of which 15 were thefts.

But Wawa’s location on 16th and Ranstead streets near City Hall – which was not targeted for closure – reported the most incidents of any branch during this period: 151 thefts , four robberies and a burglary.

Two popular Wawa locations along Aramingo Avenue in the city’s riverside neighborhoods also top the list for most reported incidents.

Draya LaMacchia, another regular at the 12th and Market branch, said she believes the two closures would do more good for competing convenience stores than they would for public safety in the downtown area.

“7-Eleven is going to love this,” LaMacchia said.

Editors Anna Orso and Dylan Purcell contributed reporting.

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