Philly’s coronavirus response

Temple’s Liacouras Center, set to be Philly’s coronavirus overflow site, almost didn’t get built

The 11,000-seat arena will be retrofitted to hold 250 beds for COVID-19 patients.

The Liacouras Center on North Broad Street

The Liacouras Center on North Broad Street

Facebook / Liacouras Center
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Philadelphia’s designated location for overflow hospital beds to use for COVID-19 patients during the coronavirus pandemic almost wasn’t built in the first place.

Temple’s Liacouras Center is set to be converted into a temporary medical site, opening up capacity to handle an expected surge in people needing isolated care, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Friday afternoon.

The 11,000-seat arena will be converted ASAP, he said, and Temple is donating use of the concert venue to the city free of charge. To start, it’ll be stocked with 250 beds — with the potential to add more if necessary. It’ll be staffed by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

To be clear, Philly hospitals aren’t yet overloaded. Officials said they hope the Liacouras won’t even be needed. But they expect it will be, since new positive cases are now on an exponential rise in the region. The city has even started thinking about expanded morgue capacity.

The city previously sought to expand capacity by using the shuttered Hahnemann University Hospital. But the building’s owner Joel Freedman reportedly asked for more than $1 million per month to rent the property. It was too high a price for the city, and negotiations failed. Philly had also negotiated with local hospitals and the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

So the ability to use the Liacouras is extremely welcome. “We’re truly Temple proud,” said Mayor Kenney, only slightly misstating the university’s slogan. “They did not hesitate when called.”

But when it was proposed in the 1990s, construction of the Liacouras caused a huge controversy, quite similar to the current back and forth over Temple’s proposed on-campus football stadium.

The venue was the brainchild of then-university president Peter J. Liacouras, who hoped it would raise the profile of Temple’s sports programs and lead to a cash infusion for the school as a whole.

Both city leaders and the college’s own faculty members resisted the idea wholeheartedly — to the point that it almost fell through altogether.

The ‘Apollo’ of Temple

To explain the controversy surrounding the Liacouras Center, we’ve gotta rewind to the year 1990.

At the time, Temple’s reputation was far from what it is today. The school was facing a dire budget crisis to the tune of a reported $15.5 million shortfall. Layoffs and infighting among faculty members were the norm.

How could the university president at the time, Peter J. Liacouras, rectify the situation? Then-men’s basketball coach John Chaney had an idea.

Together, the two men hatched a plan: They would open a $50 million “convocation center,” right on North Broad Street between Cecil B. Moore and Montgomery avenues. The massive, modern arena would seat thousands of people. It would host sports games and concerts, and it would lend Temple’s athletic programs national cred by giving teams a legit space to play. Better-known sports programs, Liacouras reasoned, would mean more money for the school.

As the decades-long university leader became obsessed with the idea, plans became increasingly extravagant. Liacouras began referring to the future arena as “the Apollo of Temple” — and his desired budget jumped to $67 million, then again to $85 million.

He pitched the idea to the powers that be, bypassing city leaders and going straight to the Pennsylvania legislature for validation and funding.

By 1994, the state had offered $33 million to build the facility. Wealthy donors kicked in another $27 million. Liacouras believed he was well on his way.

Street: ‘I don’t ever have to talk to him’

Local leaders weren’t so enthused. Liacoras’ straight-to-the-state, budget-busting approach ruffled the feathers of former Mayor Ed Rendell and City Council President John F. Street.

In December 1994, Temple’s Faculty Senate voted unanimously against the proposed indoor amphitheater. They were insulted that Liacouras would ask for tens of millions of dollars in the midst of a university budget crisis and a citywide economic downturn.

Council President Street, who represented the city’s 5th councilmanic district, where the proposed arena would be built, also pushed back. For the facility to exist, Philly’s legislative body had to approve zoning changes. And session after session, Street refused to allow the bill to the floor.

“I don’t ever have to talk to him,” Street told the New York Times about the university president. “Why do I need to talk to him?”

With just three sessions left in the legislative term, conditions started to get dire for Liacouras. If Council refused to vote on the project, he’d have to give back the $50 million he’d raised from the commonwealth and private donors.

So Liacouras went ahead with his plans anyway, opening up bidding to interested architects. “You either have faith in the future,” the university president told the Inquirer, “or you don’t.”

Things got worse for Temple’s chief executive before they got better. When Liacouras decided to cut $9 million from the school’s budget in 1995 by laying off hundreds of employees at Temple’s daycare and public TV station, people were… heated.

“Our feeling is that Temple’s priorities are screwed up,” said Gary Kapanowski, leader of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union chapter. “I charge Liacouras with acting just like the Republicans in Congress, by marginalizing children.”

Finally, in November 1995, Temple and the city managed to cut a deal.

Liacouras agreed to funnel $5 million into city agencies that could invest in affordable housing in the university’s North Philly neighborhood. In return, Rendell, Street and the full Council gave the arena a green light.

Construction began in 1996 on this “Apollo of Temple,” which would eventually seat 11,000 people and have space for 1,200 cars.

It opened in November 1997, and since then the site has welcomed some big names — from Kanye West to Bob Dylan, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. It came to be known as the Liacouras Center.

Next, it’ll welcome Philadelphians fighting to recover from COVID-19.

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