Hundreds packed a Wednesday evening town hall in Chinatown, hosted by more than 20 community organizations, to voice concerns and ask questions about the plan to build a new Sixers’ arena in Center City.
Over 200 people gathered at Ocean Harbor Restaurant on Race Street, filling every seat and stool in the dining room and spreading into standing-room-only space around the sides. Nearby Little Saigon Cafe was used as a spillover location, where about 100 more people watched via livestream.
The atmosphere was charged, and firmly anti-arena, with frequent booing over the Sixers’ proposal to build the team’s new home on Market Street, replacing the western part of the Fashion District, by 2031.
“Our city has enough issues, why build an arena?” said one audience member.
“Why can’t you stay at the Wells Fargo Center?” asked another.
The meeting was conducted in multiple languages, with statements translated to and from Mandarin, English, and Cantonese.
In addition to community leaders, staffers for some local and federal elected officials representing the area were in the building, as was District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla. Squilla at one point committed to 30 days of review and comment from community members about any legislation affecting the proposed site.
MORE: Who’s involved? What’s the timeline? All the details about the Sixers’ plan for a Center City arena
Debbie Wei, an activist with Asian Americans United, stressed that the arena development, while not necessarily in the middle of Chinatown, would come within 6 feet of the first business in the district. She noted community concerns about “drunk sports fans” spilling into the neighborhood post-game, in a period where Asian Americans have come under attack in the streets.
David Gould, chief diversity and impact officer for 76 Devcorp, the firm created to lead the construction project, was present at the meeting.
Asked if the Sixers would move forward if a majority of the Chinatown community opposed the plan, Gould noted that the other entities in the area — like Reading Terminal Market and the Washington Square West neighborhood associations — also have a say.
“Communities are not monoliths, and we know there’s never going to be unanimity,” Gould said, to loud boos, which followed his comments throughout the event.
Some people in attendance were affiliated with organizations that have already raised concerns about the basketball franchise’s lack of outreach around the mixed-use development, which it’s calling 76 Place. Others were connected to groups that haven’t yet been involved in the discussion.
Four Chinatown business organizations that recently formed a steering committee to evaluate the Sixers’ eventual community benefits agreement were not part of planning this event.
They were invited by the meeting’s organizers to attend to answer questions during the event, but did not. After this was announced, cries of “bullshit” rose from many in attendance.
The first ‘open, public’ meeting between Sixers reps and Chinatown
Questions raised ranged from inquiries about how the wider community would be consulted, to how the arena might lead to gentrification and raised rents.
Answers from Gould, of 76 Devcorp, generally followed the tenor of the Sixers’ communications to date. He touted the economic opportunity the arena would bring to the area, and doubled down on the franchise’s commitment to community engagement.
“We want to be good corporate citizens,” Gould told the crowd, suggesting that the flagging Fashion District could be bought by less community-oriented developers if it were to go bankrupt. Boos followed.
Asantewaa Nkrumah Toure, a West Philly based housing rights activist, told Gould she felt shame seeing him, a young Black man, answering questions for an organization like the Sixers, which is owned by billionaire-run Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. 76 Devcorp is helmed by another billionaire, real estate executive and new minority Sixers owner David Adelman.
“You and I both know what gentrification has done to our people,” Nkrumah Toure told Gould.
Gould spoke of his past work with nonprofits that aimed to help communities avoid the worst outcomes of development.
Mosaic Development Partners is helping lead the 76 Place project. Representatives from the Black-owned firm were also on the scene. They spoke about the Sharswood Ridge mixed-use project in North Philly that included low-income units and supported business owners who were already in the area.
MORE: What to know about David Adelman, the billionaire leading the push to build a Sixers arena in Center City
Some organizers of Wednesday night’s meeting said an attempt last month by 76 Devcorp to engage the community fell short.
At a meeting hosted by the Philadelphia Chinese Community Organization United coalition, the developers pitched Chinatown community members a preliminary plan. Wei Chen, civic engagement coordinator of Asian Americans United, said he was asked to refrain from raising “hard questions.”
“During that event, there were less than 10 questions asked from the audience,” Chen told Billy Penn.
Beyond that, one had to have an invitation and a donation to even be in the room, he said. “Whoever was invited to the meeting was asked for a $200 contribution for each organization to cover their lunch.”
Wednesday’s meeting, in contrast, was created primarily as a Q&A session meant to bring other organizations and the general public into the fold.
Organizers said part of the reason Chinatown stakeholders may not feel fully informed on 76Devcorp’s plans is insufficient language access.
The development firm has responded to similar claims by noting the 76 Place website and written presentation materials have always been available in Chinese, and that they keep a translator on hand when at community events.
A fact sheet from 76 Devcorp claims the development team has conducted “more than 30 small group information sharing meetings and countless conversations” with businesses, residents, and neighborhood groups.
Members of some of the host organizations also mobilized to speak out at a City Council hearing last week, opposing language in a zoning bill they say was forwarding arena development goals prior to a community agreement being reached.
“The arena process has been shady and shrouded in secrecy behind closed doors, talking with a selective few who do not represent the whole community, despite the impression of words they convey to developers,” Coleen Young, a community organizer with three generations worth of ties to Chinatown, told the City Council’s Committee of Finance meeting.
Councilmember Squilla sought to address those concerns going forward. “Any legislation will not be considered unless shared with the Chinatown community,” he promised, “before even being considered for introduction.”
When Gould and those associated with the Sixers left the meeting roughly an hour and a half into the event — which ran for the better part of three hours — a cry came from the crowd, which became a chorus as the 76 Devcorp group walked out through a kitchen exit.
“Hands off Chinatown!”