For some Philadelphia elected officials, the 76ers’ proposal to build a $1.3 billion stadium in Center City is a welcome opportunity to transform the East Market Street corridor and boost the local economy.
For others, it raises concerns about the arena’s potential impact on nearby Chinatown, and over whether the team’s vows to forgo taxpayer support will hold true.
More than a few, however, are opting to wait for more details about the nascent plan to become available.
With City Council likely needing to pass ordinances green-lighting the project — and with next year’s mayoral and Council races sure to produce significant turnover in the city’s leadership — the level of political support for the proposal over the next few years could determine its fate.
While Mayor Jim Kenney is supportive of the plan, he is set to leave office in January 2024, and his successor may be less enthusiastic. For instance, Councilmember Helen Gym, one of five Council members who may run in next year’s mayoral election, said Thursday that she is “extremely skeptical” of the proposal, raising the possibility of it being a major issue in the race.
» READ MORE: The Sixers want to build a new $1.3 billion arena in Center City
Additionally, the backing of the district Councilmember who represents the proposed location will likely be critical due to the unwritten tradition known as councilmanic prerogative, under which all Councilmembers almost always default to the preferences of the local representative in land-use decisions.
Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose 1st District includes the proposed 10th and Market Streets location and is up for reelection next year, said he is “very excited about the Sixers proposal,” but wants to work to ensure the needs of Chinatown and other neighboring communities are met.
“It could be a major economic boost for the East Market corridor, and I’m excited to hear that they wouldn’t be asking for any additional city subsidies,” he said. “The most intriguing part is the opportunity to have an arena on top of a transportation hub.”
On occasion, other Council members break with prerogative, especially on large projects of citywide interest, and Squilla expects a full Council debate on the stadium proposal.
“I’m thinking this is going to be a little different since it’s such a big project. We have a lot of independent-thinking Councilmembers,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to say, ‘Oh, that’s the Councilmember’s district; whatever he said is going to go.’ This is a project for the entire city, but the people who are most impacted are the local communities.”
Council President Darrell L. Clarke was noncommittal, saying in a statement that the potential for economic growth and job creation is “welcome news,” but that the developers must embark on a “robust, transparent and sensitive” community engagement process.
Clarke also noted that he preferred a previous plan the Sixers floated, which would have put an arena on the Delaware River waterfront. The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. rejected that plan in favor a mixed-use development with large residential towers.
» READ MORE: The Sixers are targeting Penn’s Landing for a potential new basketball arena
”We need to give this new proposal all the attention, scrutiny and due diligence that it deserves,” Clarke said.
At-large Councilmember Allan Domb, himself a developer and another potential mayoral candidate, supports the proposal.
“This couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said. “It will help with public safety.”
Gym, an at-large Councilmember, two decades ago demonstrated against a proposed Phillies stadium near Chinatown that never came to fruition, and also opposed a proposed casino in the area in 2009. On Thursday, Gym said she was concerned the Chinatown community had not been heard, saying: “We’ve seen this before.”
”I’m not interested in development that says that it will be merely tolerant of, inclusive of, adjacent to Chinatown,” she said. “It should actually benefit the community whose development trajectory has benefitted the entire city of Philadelphia.”
Asian Americans United, a Philly group that seeks to help people of Asian ancestry “build their communities and unite to challenge oppression,” will urge elected officials to reject the 76ers plan, said Wei Chen, the group’s civic engagement director.
» READ MORE: The Sixers aren’t the first team to eye Center City. Here’s why it didn’t work for the Phillies.
The group’s primary concerns are the impact on stadium-driven traffic and parking issues — which Chen said would negatively impact Chinatown restaurants that rely on takeout — as well as the potential gentrification of the neighborhood.
“The basketball stadium also increases the housing prices around the surrounding area,” Chen said. “It will gentrify my community, and many people — many immigrants who are new to this community — will get pushed out.”
Chen said the 76ers did not reach out to his group before unveiling the plan, which he called “very disrespectful.”
”Before they announced it, before they planned it, they didn’t ask the opinion from our community,” Chen said. “We hope our politicians will hear from our community members, to understand and help us to stop it.”
At-large Councilmember David Oh, a Republican with close ties to Chinatown and its business community, said he’s also concerned about the effects on housing affordability and disruption to local businesses.
He said there’s potential for the arena to lift up the surrounding neighborhoods and encourage spectators to patronize nearby restaurants and shops — but without more details on whether that will happen, Oh said he’s not taking a position of support or opposition.
“When everything is said and done, the risk of it being negative is significant,” he said.
The debate over whether the project would benefit from taxpayer support — a common practice for stadium projects until recent years, when it became politically unpopular in liberal cities — will be complicated.
The team has said it needs no local funding to build the stadium. A city spokesperson confirmed there are no plans for new subsidies.
But the arena’s developer has also said that the plan involves inheriting a 30-year property tax break for the parcel that Council gave to the current property owners, the Philadelphia Real Estate Investment Trust, to finance development of the Fashion District.
Whether that amounts to a subsidy from city taxpayers is in the eye of the beholder.
“There is no place in this world where billion-dollar corporations should seek public subsidies of any kind,” Gym said. “In a time when we are dealing with a massive housing crisis, a health crisis, a gun violence crisis, we need our public dollars and our public will to go towards addressing those.”
Kenney’s administration said in a statement that it’s an “ideal site for a world-class sports and entertainment arena.”
“We are excited about the energy that this will bring to Philadelphia’s historic retail district,” the statement said. “Based on our briefings to date, we are optimistic about the development team’s robust community engagement process and their commitment to equity and inclusion.”
The administration also reiterated that it’s committed to finding a “long-term” home for the Sixers and will work with the development team on potential changes to zoning, permitting, urban planning, “calculation of real estate taxes,” and community engagement.
Additionally, the team has also opened the door to receiving state funding.
State Sen. Nikil Saval, a progressive Philadelphia Democrat whose district includes the proposed stadium location, declined to comment until he is briefed on the proposal and talks with community groups.
State Rep. Mary Isaacson, a Democrat whose district includes the site, was briefed on the plan and said she’s taking a wait-and-see approach. She said she’s not opposed to the proposal, but wants to see how the community engagement process plays out.
» READ MORE: In the Sixers arena plan, hopes for a revitalized Market East — and concerns about poor urban design
Isaacson said she’s particularly interested in finding ways that the developers can partner with community organizations and businesses to ensure the preservation of Chinatown, “a thriving economic engine of the city.”
”It’s also one of the only thriving Chinatowns left in America,” she said. “We should be proud of that cultural heritage and make sure that the community benefits and is protected.”
Isaacson added that the Sixers have made it “abundantly clear” that they’ve been shopping around for a new home, and she said it’s essential the city keeps the organization “and the jobs and economic development that brings.”