Members of the Chinatown community joined leaders at the announcement of the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena at Tom’s Dim Sum restaurant

To coordinate and strengthen the swell of grassroots opposition to the Sixers’ proposal to build a new home in Center City, advocates on Monday announced the formal Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena.

Made up of more than 40 nonprofits, community organizations, and business groups in the neighborhood, the coalition formed with the support of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national law firm that has focused on civil rights since the mid-70s.

Coalition leaders said they surveyed neighborhood businesses, and 90 of 100 signed on to an anti-arena petition, with more expected to add their names.

“The reason why we wanted to make this important is one of the things that the Sixers said,” Harry Leong, president of the Philadelphia Suns and outreach director at Chinese Christian Church + Center, told Billy Penn. “That there are people who may not have said anything — and very few organizations are opposing.”

Philadelphia’s Chinatown has a decades-long record of fighting development. It successfully stopped a casino and a Phillies ballpark from being built in the vicinity.

Plans for the basketball and entertainment arena, formally titled 76 Place at Market East, do not place it directly in the neighborhood; it would take over a section of the struggling Fashion District mall. But its outer edges would be less than 10 feet from the first few businesses in Chinatown.

To demonstrate the proximity, after Monday’s announcement advocates led a short walk to 10th and Cuthbert streets. That’s the location of Huge Family Store — the Chinatown general store that would be closest to the proposed arena.

The Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena showed the proximity of Chinatown businesses to the site of the proposed 76ers basketball venue, which would include the demolition of the Greyhound Bus Station at 10th and Filbert Streets Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A December community meeting highlighted disappointment with the Sixers’ community engagement effort thus far, and spurred the creation of the new coalition to demonstrate the solidarity and depth of dissent.

“The reason why this coalition is made is to let [the Sixers] and other people know that it’s more than just one organization,” said Leong.

Last fall, lead 76 Place developer David Adelman struck a confident note about community feedback, saying that after dozens of meetings with Chinatown organizations, he felt the overall response was “neutral to positive.”

Leong thinks concerns have been dismissed by the developers as being just something led by activist group Asian Americans United.

76 Devcorp, the firm created to push forward the arena, did single out the group by issuing a document correcting factual errors they saw in AAU’s public communications. Billy Penn received a copy on the day of last month’s gathering.

Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena member organizations include:

  • Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition
  • Philadelphia Chinatown Dragon Boat Team
  • Asian Americans United
  • Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School
  • Chinese Restaurant Association of Greater Philadelphia
  • Concerned Citizens of Chinatown Association
  • Philadelphia Suns
  • Asian Arts Initiative

Concerns over what happened in St. Louis and DC

The “systematic survey” of Chinatown business owners is a concrete way the coalition wants to dispel the idea that there was such limited discontent.

“Chinatown will be like D.C., like St. Louis Chinatown,” Stephen Zhu, head of the Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association and secretary of the PA United Chinese Coalition, told Billy Penn.

In the 1960s, “urban renewal” saw a St. Louis Cardinals stadium built atop that city’s first Chinatown, and in the 1990s, the Washington Wizards arena was constructed in the middle of DC Chinatown, to what many feel was detrimental effect.

Zhu, whose association represents over 300 Chinese restaurants, is especially concerned about potential congestion on the streets and a mass of foot traffic that won’t benefit the community. There’s also the challenge of being so close to a multiyear construction site.

“Every couple of days, hundreds of people in and out, [and] so many construction cars,” he said. “I think people will slowly disappear.”

76 Devcorp is studying how people currently get to Sixers games, to assure their claim that existing parking within half a mile from 76 Place — which would be built atop one of Philly’s busiest public transit hubs — will be plenty to accommodate fans.

“We are currently working with Langan on a traffic study that will compare existing capacity to anticipated demand and make recommendations for improvements to mitigate congestion,” 76 Devcorp spokesperson Nicole Gainer said. “Before the study can be finalized and shared with the public, it must receive approval from the city and PennDOT.”

Zi-Ai Bobby Zhang, co-founder of the Hoyu Cultural Center in Philadelphia, joined Chinatown organizations and businesses opposing the development of a basketball arena in the neighborhood Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The arena’s target completion date isn’t until 2031, but 76 Devcorp has been open about its desire to have all the appropriate zoning permits for the project buttoned down by this June. That seems premature, said Leong, of the Philadelphia Suns

“How can you take something on faith when the existence of this community is at play here?” he asked.

Other Chinatown organizations and coalitions are taking a “wait and see” approach, like the Chinatown Steering Committee formed by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation to receive and adjudicate the Sixers’ community benefits agreement.

Months ago, Leong said he was invited to take part in the information sharing meetings of the group that was to become the steering committee. He initially turned down the opportunity, concerned he’d be there “to be used by Sixers as a pawn,” but members of his church urged him to accept the seat at the table.

But after his skepticism about the idea became apparent at the first meeting, he said, he was asked to leave.

“The committee was supposed to stay in and talk about plans for the next steps — I was asked to leave with the Sixers” after they made their presentation, Leong recalled.

He doesn’t believe the group is “in the Sixers’ pocket,” as some have suggested. “I think that the steering committee does want to see what’s good for the community. I just think that they did it in a roundabout way,” Leong said.

“I mean, it’s taken six months for the steering committee to come up with, ‘Hey, we want to hear what people are saying.’”

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Jordan Levy

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...