The Sixers' vision for a downtown arena is years in the making

The Sixers’ vision for a downtown arena is years in the making

When news first broke regarding plans for a new Sixers arena in downtown Philadelphia, the natural response from anyone who lives in the city is to ask a couple of basic questions: how much is it going to cost, and how will this impact the people who live here?

According to the Sixers and the people partnering with them on this project, the answers to those questions are “nothing to you” and “only in a positive way.” The sales pitch from this team, coming together under the umbrella of 76 Devcorp, is that the arena will bring people together rather than tear anything or anyone apart.

“It’s coming from ownership. It’s coming from Josh Harris, it’s coming from David Blitzer, it’s coming from David Adelman, it’s coming from HBSE,” Sixers CEO Tad Brown told PhillyVoice on Thursday. “It’s privately funded, we’re not asking for any subsidies here from the city. We know that the city has other problems, and that they have other things that they need to take care of. We are going to help them focus on those, and providing our own capital and our own resources to fund this project is a way for them to focus on other things.”

“It’s something that we’re hoping to take off of the table so that we can really focus on what’s going to be best for Center City, what’s going to be best for the city, and what’s going to be best for our fans.”

This is not an idea that sprung to life all at once or even that recently. Back in Fall 2020, the Sixers submitted a proposal that would have built a new arena as the centerpiece of a project at Penn’s Landing, a proposal the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation ultimately passed on. That proposal ultimately would have been supported by around $700 million in public incentives on top of the larger private contribution from the team.

When CEO Tad Brown was brought over from the Houston Rockets last summer, there were some broad ideas about why he was here in Philadelphia beyond being a trusted confidant for Daryl Morey. Brown had been instrumental in negotiating regional television deals for the Rockets on top of serving on the NBA’s Media Committee, and with uncertainty in the future of NBC’s broadcast model (not to mention the rise of streaming-centric content), that still looms on the horizon.

But privately, it has been made clear throughout conversations over the last year that Brown’s primary objective since joining the organization is to put the team in a new arena at the conclusion of their current lease with Wells Fargo Center. That all came spilling out on Thursday, as each of the stakeholders shared their vision for the who, what, why, where and how.

Who?

The Sixers, obviously. But to launch a project of this magnitude requires contributions from what could end up being thousands of people, before getting to the local residents who will be impacted (for better or for worse) in some way by the construction of a new arena. Enter 76 Devcorp, which inspired one of the first discussions of the day — what’s the reason for a new brand?

“HBSE has a lot of infrastructure running the teams, this is a parallel entity to run a real estate business,” said David Adelman, who was announced as Chairman of 76 Devcorp on Thursday morning. “This is not like a trade, this is a big enterprise over nine years. So we created this vehicle, it’s still common ownership among everyone. I’m kind of sitting at the top and building a great team, we have a great CEO in Jonathan Fascitelli, we have Mosiac Development Partners as a partner in the entity, and we’re going to have architects, engineers, all of that in there. So we just, from an ease of use, needed to create a separate infrastructure.”

Adelman says he first discussed options with the Sixers two years ago, after being approached by Joshua Harris and David Blitzer about partnering on this project. Any initial hesitation, Adelman says, was a function of the long lead time for the project and the potential complications that come with a project of this scale. Over time, Adelman says that changed from being a deterrent to more of an inspiration, viewing this as an opportunity to positively impact the area.

David Gould, the Sixers’ Chief Diversity and Impact Officer, has spent much of the last two years looking at the organization’s day-to-day business and searching for ways to translate that into positively impacting local communities. The opportunity to apply those same practices to a project of this scale, Gould said Thursday, is a super-sized version of what he hopes to accomplish each day with each decision they make.

“How do we make sure that we’re connecting folks to jobs and contract opportunities through both the construction and the ongoing operations of the arena? It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gould said. “We’re really focused on making sure we do things right, we get it right, and we maximize the potential for the positive impact this project could have on the city.”

“Often times what you see in Philly, you have a project of this size and the diversity of the workers and businesses, many times it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the city. And part of the reason is because we don’t do a good enough job of investing ahead of time so that they’re actually ready. By the time we have a project that starts, you just have to utilize whoever’s already out there. So we’re really thinking about how do we invest in that ahead of time, prepare those workers and businesses for opportunities on the project to build it. And then when it opens, we want to do the same thing. So who are all the vendors that we’re going to need, whether they be in the arena or servicing the arena? How do we invest in those businesses ahead of time, and how do we prepare people for job opportunities?”

That process starts, Gould notes, as far down as apprenticeships and coordination with trade unions, and extends to partnerships with others around the city.

Greg Reaves, a cofounder of Mosaic Development Partners, is one of those important partners in the early stages of this process. Mosaic is a Black-owned development company with a focus on serving and empowering underserved communities, Reaves explained to PhillyVoice on Thursday, and Mosaic received a $10 million investment from Joshua Harris in January of this year. Reaves says, for example, that Mosaic believes in the power of mixed-income housing, with people from different backgrounds all having the same community access to resources.

“When the arena came up,” Reaves told PhillyVoice, “we wanted to be involved, because not just that it’s a great arena, and I’m a sports fan of course, but that’s never mattered as much to us as how we’re building and who we’re building with. Our focus has always been, you can build this beautiful building, but if nobody that looks like me is able to participate in it, why should I care?… This is Philadelphia, this is a city that’s over 60 percent BIPOC. If you look at people that are in this space, very few of them look like people that look like the city.”

“We know how to bring in at the very beginning, the right attorneys, the right architects, the right engineers, that even if they don’t have the full capacity to do projects at this scale, they’re very adept at partnering and growing their ecosystem.”

What?

The proposal, in the broadest possible terms, is to take a third of the current Fashion District mall site and repurpose it into an arena, while integrating the remaining malls as a retail, entertainment, and food venue. Some early write-ups on the idea likened its central nature to Madison Square Garden in New York City, but newer arenas in other markets (San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Detroit) also help to provide the blueprint for what this venue will look like.

Notably, the arena will feature roughly 18,500 seats, a number that was used in the Penn’s Landing proposal years ago and one they’re sticking with today. It’s a small, but noteworthy step down from their current home at Wells Fargo Center, more in line with other modern arenas. Golden State’s Chase Center, for example, has a capacity of 18,064 fans.

“I think the trend earlier on, you’re talking about circa 25-30 years, was can you put as many people in as possible? I think for us, we’re trying to be like, what’s the best fan experience? What creates the best sightlines? So we don’t want to have folks at the upper level feeling like they have sh*tty seats,” Adelman told PhillyVoice. “So we kind of backed into it, what gives the best sightlines, what gives the best fan experience, and do we take seats out to add other programming? Different clubs, different collaborations, stuff like that… we’re not going to have that steep slope you need to get 20,000-plus people in there. It’s going to be more linear, and that’s really important to us.”

Gould noted during our chat that maintaining the trust of constituents in local communities, a la Chinatown and Washington Square West, is a foundational piece of the project, that the Sixers ultimately have to listen to community thoughts and concerns to figure out what the best path forward looks like. Already, concerns have been raised by local groups, including Asian Americans United, who put forth a press release on Thursday afternoon in response to the development.

“What has the NBA arena in Washington DC’s Chinatown done? It has reduced Chinatown from a residential neighborhood of thousands to a few restaurants, signs on the Starbucks in Chinese, and the Chinatown gate,”  said Steven Zhu, President of the Chinese Restaurant Association. “We know that these big sports arenas do not contribute to the neighborhoods that they are in; they serve only their own needs and their own profits.”

Some of the aspirational goals from the group sound like they could run up against that problem. The vision of this project goes beyond just the basketball arena, which will only be a basketball arena some of the time. The lead parties involved stress this should not be viewed as direct competition for a place like Wells Fargo Center, and that a second large, indoor venue will allow Philadelphia to host more consequential events, not beholden to scheduling around the Flyers and Sixers at the same time. But how does their neighborhood-centric vision ultimately play out for local businesses?

“Our goal would be to open it up to Market Street. And so the goal would be that even if there’s not an event going on, the retail will cover the facade, so you won’t walk by and say oh, there’s nothing going on here,” Adelman said Thursday. “There will always be activity on the street. We want people to come down pregame, postgame and have something to eat, do something, go shopping, okay?

“If there have been situations where a community has been negatively impacted, how do we get ahead of that and think about doing things differently,” Gould added.

Where?

For suburban commuters, the South Philly Sports Complex has been a unique, convenient place to assemble for games and concerts year-round, supported by significant parking infrastructure and at least some access to transportation. This new proposal, however, puts the Sixers squarely in Center City, atop Septa’s Jefferson Station (still referred to by this author, among others, as Market East).

Public transportation access to that area of the city is significant, with PATCO trains, regional rail, and the Market-Frankford line all either on the block or a short walk away from the proposed arena site. The immediate thought of getting to games is thought of as a fan-centric problem, but Reaves says it’s no less significant as a means for staffing the project.  

“That location drives equity in a very serious and meaningful way, where you don’t have to invest billions of dollars for new transportation modes to get people access,” Reaves told PhillyVoice. “It gives people who are looking for jobs the ability to say, I don’t need a car to get there. It’s not just the patron that’s coming to experience, it’s the worker, the small business person, the person who’s doing the maintenance, or the cleaning, those companies. And it’s not just them, it’s their employees that are looking at how much does it cost me to get to work every day… we build a lot near transportation hubs in tough neighborhoods, and we know that access to public transportation is critical to being able to give them equity.”

Why?

The Sixers and their partners were careful to note that they have no ill-will toward Wells Fargo Center, with Brown saying Thursday that Comcast is a “great partner” they’d continue to try to work with. At the very least, it’s what they have to say for now until this proposal turns into a reality, and until the Sixers’ lease is up at the place they commonly refer to as “The Center.”

So I’ll say what they won’t or can’t — their arena might not be ancient, but it lags behind the competition in a lot of big markets for one reason or another. Build in the mid-’90s, it compares unfavorably to many arenas that were built only 5-10 years after its completion, let alone more modern venues. Investments have been made to add new bells and whistles (and a gigantic jumbotron centerpiece) over the years, and while those are on track to continue, the bones of the building are what they are.

From a team perspective, the Sixers believe a brand-new arena serves them from a competitive standpoint, setting aside the amenities and aesthetics. 

“You’ve seen new arenas around the country, certainly it becomes a competitive advantage,” Brown said Thursday. “Not only from just a general city perspective, you know, a business perspective, an ability to control your own destiny from a certain perspective. There’s no question teams that either have control or are the lead tenant in their building have had a greater ability to win championships. The majority of them all are in that vein. That’s not the only thing, but it certainly helps, it provides the organization a great way to provide those resources, that environment and that city feel. That creates the free agent kind of wish, if you will.”

“Thinking about Doc, the players, the training staff and thinking about what we can create in a new facility, it’s beyond anything you can do in any old arena across the country. That’s why when you go to Golden State, and you go to Milwaukee, and you go to these new facilities, their team facilities are second to none because you’re able to program that as you go in. We believe it’s going to be a competitive advantage for us, which means it’s going to be a competitive advantage for the city of Philadelphia.”

How?

If what the Sixers and their partners are selling on the surface is as they are presenting it, it’s hard to find many issues with the proposal. But a project of this scale, a project nine years away from projected completion at that, is going to run into barriers and troubleshooting moments at some point, at which point their commitments to diversity, affordability, private funding, and a variety of other goals will all be put to the test.

One of the unsaid implications of this idea is the potential stress on the very public transportation being spotlighted as a central pillar of the project. Philadelphia’s public transportation system is not exactly the model for American city traversal, and should the Sixers get proper approvals for this project over the next couple of years, there will be some important, big-picture discussions at the local and state levels about how to support the traffic in and out of the area, whether those people have plans centered around the arena or simply need to get nearby for work.

As of now, we’re still a way off from having to grapple with issues like these yet. The next two years are earmarked for “entitlements and approvals,” design would take place from 2024-26, demolition between 2026-27, and construction between 2028-31. At the end of the road, Adelman says, they will have a product everyone can be proud of.

“We want to create a better fan experience, we want to bring it downtown, we want to revitalize the city, and we want to do it with our own capital. That’s it,” Adelman told PhillyVoice on Thursday. “And so to us, that accomplishes a lot of good. Civic good, team good, community good. That’s what we want.”


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