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76ers & Chinatown: Downtown Arena Proposal Forms Deep Divisions

Last Updated: August 15, 2023

This is the third in a four-part series outlining the Philadelphia 76ers’ plan to build a $1.3 billion basketball arena in Philly’s Center City. Throughout the series of in-depth, deeply reported stories, Boardroom will identify the major players of a proposal that has become a complex web of so many aspects of Philadelphia life that will play a large role in determining the long-term future of Center City and Philly as a whole.

Part I: For David Adelman and the 76ers, Big Arena Dreams Come With Even Bigger Obstacles
Part II: Are the 76ers & Comcast at War Over a Downtown Arena Project? Depends on Who You Ask
Part IV: The 76ers Want a New Downtown Arena. Here’s How They Get it

Between heated meetings and sizable protests at City Hall, tensions are running high between the 76ers and the local Chinatown community.

A March 16 press release sent out by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation made its stance on the Philadelphia 76ers‘ proposed $1.3 billion privately funded arena 76 Place in Center City right next to Chinatown crystal clear, the last of many major local organizations to come out strongly against the plan.

“The arena deeply imperils the future of Chinatown,” the PCDC said, adding that a language-accessible survey of 230 local Chinatown business owners, residents, patrons, worshipers, and visitors showed that 93% of business owners, 94% of residents, and 95% of visitors oppose the arena. ” … The top concerns regarding the proposed arena include the deterioration of Chinatown culture, parking and traffic congestion, as well as increasing rent and displacement.”

There have been numerous local and grassroots protests against the arena plan and in support of the Chinatown community over the last year-plus, including an April demonstration that saw a petition against 76 Place with more than 15,000 signatures delivered at City Hall to local council members who will eventually get to vote on a zoning approval for the proposed site at the Fashion District Mall on Market St. between 10th and 11th St. A June 10 march through Center City drew thousands, with protesters reportedly cheekily chanting “we don’t trust the process.”

76ers Chinatown
Photo courtesy of Joe Piette

A 76ers spokesperson told Boardroom that the team’s biggest challenge and concern behind the scenes when it comes to the arena is understanding how to adequately address the Chinatown groups’ concerns. In conversations with local Chinatown community leaders and top Sixers brass, it’s clear that the gap in communication, understanding, and agreement between the two sides is likely irrevocably wide, a very public fight that’s turned bitter, nasty, and personal with the stakes high and the tensions even higher.

For David Gould, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment’s chief diversity and impact officer leading the charge in community relations for the 76 Place arena plan, it was vital to accomplish a few things early on. The arena team wanted to develop the project in an additive and beneficial way for communities across the city, including, but not limited to Chinatown. That could only be accomplished, Gould said, through meaningful dialogue with community members. Trust and feedback needed to be established early on to find solutions that worked for all involved.

Suffice it to say that little to none of these aforementioned goals were achieved.

“It has not been a community engagement process in the slightest,” Mohan Seshadri, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, Pennsylvania’s statewide organization advocating for the needs of its local communities, told Boardroom. “We were all very much blindsided by the announcement.”

Deborah Wei, the co-founder of Asian Americans United, a local Philadelphia group founded to “exercise leadership to build their communities and unite to challenge oppression,” said 76 Dev. Corp was duplicitous and gaslighting from the start.

“They have the arrogance that billionaires have, thinking they can buy everything and just be able to ram this thing through,” she told Boardroom.

76ers Chinatown
Photo courtesy of Joe Piette

The Sixers said in a statement that they were involved in confidential contract negotiations that were still pending with site owners, and when negotiations on the proposed site were completed, they were able to socialize their proposal and begin community engagement.

“We felt comfortable moving forward with the proposal, knowing that we weren’t developing in Chinatown. We are developing near and adjacent to Chinatown,” Gould said, a technicality Wei found offensive. “This is all based around a private real estate transaction.”

Immediately after the announcement last summer, Gould said he personally spent a lot of time in Chinatown building relationships and conversing with numerous local groups, including Asian Americans United, to get the information and facts about the project out to these vital organizations.

“The feedback I got was ‘We want you to come and we don’t want you to present. We just want you to listen,’” Gould said.

But by late fall of 2022, it seemed like the Sixers had finally made some inroads in the Chinatown community.

On Nov. 13, more than 200 members of local cultural and business groups under the overarching Philadelphia Chinese Community Organization United for an hour-long presentation by Gould, minority stakeholder and arena lead David Adelman, and HBSE CEO Tad Brown translated into Mandarin and Cantonese, though that wasn’t the case in other meetings the Sixers held, Wei and Seshadri said. A committee led by the head of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, a founder of the Philadelphia Chinatown Business Association, and the head of the PCCOU began meeting with Adelman, Gould, and the development team to discuss the pros and cons of the arena plan. It was part of the 30-plus meetings Gould said took place with the community between July and December, listening to issues including but not limited to parking, traffic, crime, security, rising rents, and impacts on local businesses.

Soon thereafter, Gould said people they were having productive conversations with grew more concerned about some in the broader Chinatown community knowing they were speaking to the Sixers, possibly wary of being viewed as shills for the developers. No less than 10-15 people told Gould, he recalls, that if they didn’t hold an anti-arena view, they’d be targeted, vilified, and shunned in the community.

76ers Chinatown
Photo courtesy of Rodney Atienza

Hostility grew in early December when the wording contained in a parking refinancing bill from Philadelphia City Council’s Finance Committee would — if passed — begin the process of shutting down Filbert St. between 10th and 11th Streets to traffic, an important corridor next to Chinatown and a major intersection for the 76 Place plan. Local leaders were incensed.

“If you have the intentional community engagement process that they said they’d have,” Seshadri said, “you don’t try to sneak legislative language to start the construction of the arena into a completely unrelated parking bill.”

“As we continue to explore plans for the proposed arena, we are coordinating with stakeholders in collaboration with the City to outline what is necessary to make this project possible – which would include changes to Filbert Street,” the Sixers said in a statement at the time. “Our understanding is that this bill simply keeps the option open for changes that would still need approval in the future.”

That set the stage for the first open public forum between the Sixers and the broader Chinatown community on Dec. 14, which became the central inflection point for the broad rift between the two sides. Gould said he was given a week’s notice and was not allowed to give a presentation and was only allowed to answer questions. The four organizations that had been meeting with Adelman and Gould were reportedly not invited.

Due to scheduling conflicts, Gould, joined by Mosaic Partners’ Gregory Reaves and Leslie Smallwood-Lewis, was the only lead member of 76 Dev. Corp to attend, something Wei noted. Due to what happened with the parking bill, Wei said, the roughly 200 attendees were hostile.

The meeting was heated from the start.

The town hall held at a local restaurant was fully language accessible and was attended by local politicians, including council member Mark Squilla. Gould attended for about 90 minutes and answered audience questions before being escorted out of the building through a side entrance. Beyond that, what happened at the meeting and how things were portrayed vary wildly depending on who you ask.

Gould said not all the information the Chinatown leaders presented was factual or accurate, and that he wasn’t given a chance to correct anything. The crowd was staunchly anti-arena and booed many of his responses.

“There were very strict rules about how long I had to answer questions and what I was allowed to say,” he said. “There were some questions that I wasn’t allowed to elaborate on. I was only allowed to say yes or no. And most of the time when I did try to answer questions, I was booed, shouted over, cursed at, and called a bunch of different pretty vile names.”

Gould distinctly remembered one Black woman at the meeting who stood up and said essentially that as a Black man, he should be ashamed to be standing up there representing developers.

“I’m embarrassed to be here to see a young Black man being the frontman for some rich white folks to tear down a community,” the woman said.

When questions were getting off-topic, Gould said his team decided it was time to go.

“We asked a lot of hard questions that they couldn’t answer, and then they all got up and left early,” Wei said. “Our council member was there. Other elected officials had staff there. They all stayed through the meeting and tried to answer our questions. But these guys just got up and left early. I guess they were afraid of some little old Chinese ladies.”

It’s a challenge trying to navigate a situation, Gould said, where community members say they’re opposed to the plan that they haven’t heard enough about, but the Sixers aren’t allowed to provide or present enough information in open forums. The December meeting signaled the end of community groups feeling comfortable inviting 76 Dev. Corp to open meetings and the beginning of virtually every group signaling opposition to the arena.

“You couldn’t ask for a worse scenario for building trust in a community,” Wei said.

The Philadelphia Chinatown community has seen development rip apart its neighborhood before. The Vine Street Expressway portion of Interstate-676 bisected the community in the 1980s, and a proposed stadium in Chinatown for the Phillies in 2000 failed. Residents are fearful that what happened to the Chinatown in Washington, DC, where eminent domain to construct a new arena for the Wizards decimated the local area into an irredeemable shell of its former self, could come to Philadelphia.

Wei has spent her entire life in Chinatown. She got married in Chinatown, saw her kids grow up there, had birthdays, graduations, and funerals in the neighborhood. The community leaders working to stop the Sixers are the same people or the children of those who prevented large-scale development in the area in the past, Seshadri said. It’s the only place, he continued, where Asian Americans can feel safe walking the streets, practicing their culture and way of life without fear of violence.

“They don’t understand why this community fights the way it does and why we’re not giving up,” Wei said.

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On the arena website, the 76ers say they’re aware of past development efforts in Chinatown and why they were opposed, and they’re aware that the project can only move forward with community support and a plan that benefits the surrounding neighborhood.

“There’s been an admirable culture and history in Chinatown of really working hard and through activism, protecting their community and ensuring the preservation of it in light of large-scale development,” Gould said.

Around the time in March when the PCDC publicly came out against 76 Place, the Sixers announced that Philadelphia’s African-American Chamber of Commerce was supporting the plan, something Wei called a coincidence that the Chinatown community saw right through. The Sixers and the Chamber partnered to fund a program powered by Mosaic Partners to help Black-owned businesses participate throughout the process, giving workers and businesses the opportunity to have a major part in building, having a meaningful presence in, and working at the new arena for its proposed 2031 opening.

The program would provide training skills and access to capital, making the local Black community feel like these promises are different than ones not kept in the past, Gould said. The team told Boardroom it hopes to make similar commitments to the Chinatown community.

A board member of the African-American Chamber of Commerce told Boardroom that there hasn’t been a local project approached in this way from the beginning with Black businesses in mind. It’s also a good opportunity, he said, to reshape how things are done in this city both from a business perspective and also in helping Philadelphia become more of a public transit-centric city with the proposed site built atop transit hub Jefferson Station.

However, the board member doesn’t like folks stoking and creating rifts among communities that should be getting along, calling a clash between the Black and Asian communities a media narrative. He also doesn’t see why there would be a rise in crime, considering crime in South Philadelphia doesn’t rise when any of the sports teams play. When music and media mogul Irving Azoff helped rebuild the Forum in Inglewood, California, he told Boardroom crime went down when more locals were hired and the downtown area around the arena was rebuilt and revitalized.

Safety in Center City, the Sixers said, is a far bigger issue than just the team. It’s going to take feet on the streets and dialogue with the city, which has included incorporating hired consultants on this issue. The team wants 76 Place to be a well-lit, well-populated area with trained security guards and police, and the team will try and find ways to further address what remains an important community issue.

76ers Chinatown
Rendering courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have listened to community feedback in a number of other ways, too, and have changed their arena plans to reflect it, said Gould. The event level of the arena was moved up from street level, he said, because Chinatown community members stressed the importance of an active and vibrant site on non-game days where retail options can expand and pedestrian flow could improve if the current Fashion District Mall area is open to 24/7 foot traffic. It would also allow for additional arena entrances from street level and for transit passengers below.

Additionally, a residential tower above the arena’s north side would also create up to 70 new affordable housing units as part of a mixed-income building. The Sixers also committed $50 million to a community benefits agreement to address concerns community members may have. They’re also contemplating, Gould said, leasing out hundreds of local parking spots and offering them at a discounted rate for employees of Chinatown businesses, residents, and customers of Chinatown businesses through a validation system the team would put together.

The Sixers claim that there will be 9,000 parking spots within a 10-15 minute walk of the arena, whereas only 3-5,000 cars park at an average game at Wells Fargo Center, the team said. Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Wells Fargo Center, refutes that claim, saying the arena can garner 6-6,500 cars for full events.

As divisions between the Chinatown community and the team continue to grow, with Seshadri calling 76 Place nothing short of a “land grab,” several studies are being commissioned by the team, the city, and local communities to assess the impact a new arena would have on the city and the local areas on numerous issues including crime, traffic, environmental, and economic impacts. The results of these studies will inform legislation that will need to be introduced by council member Mark Squilla that would approve the zoning of the mall for the Sixers to build an arena on.

As the year progresses and the stakes get bigger, the clock is quickly ticking on the 76ers’ ability to build an arena in Center City.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final installment of this series, where we’ll hear from Squilla and the steps that need to be taken to complete the Sixers’ quest to get city council and mayoral approval to build on the site by the end of the year before it’s no longer a viable site.

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About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.