QT Vietnamese Sandwich owner Michael Ha believes the arena would decimate businesses in Chinatown, particularly the restaurants. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Listen to the audio version of this story by WHYY’s Cory Sharber

Around 100 people gathered Wednesday night in Chinatown for a meeting organized by a coalition of groups opposing the construction of a 76ers arena in Center City. 

Held at Chinese Christian Church and Center at 11th and Vine streets, the meeting offered space for residents, anti-arena advocates, and members of the coalition’s many member organizations to discuss new information about the proposed development — and announce further actions planned in opposition. 

Meeting leaders recounted the neighborhood’s blanket opposition to the arena, and older residents gave testimonials about the importance of preserving the community. 

Younger residents also spoke to that importance. “We want to be able to bring our kids to Chinatown,” said a 21-year-old named Yihua who’s lived in Chinatown since he was a toddler. 

Part of the conversation — conducted in English and Mandarin — revolved around an alleged connection between the Sixers, a super PAC supporting mayoral candidate Jeff Brown, and Brown’s campaign. Funding coordination between the PAC and campaign violates campaign finance laws, according to the city’s Board of Ethics, whose lawsuit over the matter surfaced documents pointing to a potential six-figure Sixers donation.  

“It just feels like [the Sixers are] explicitly trying to buy a mayoral candidate so that they can build this project,” Jenny Chen, a West Philly resident and coalition member, told Billy Penn.

“When they kind of take those kind of actions it really negates all the things that they claim when they say, ‘Oh, we’re here to really support the city and benefit Chinatown and we’re gonna really work together.’”

The Brown campaign maintains it never engaged in a quid pro quo to support the arena, calling the allegations “nonsense.” The candidate has declared he’s in favor of the project. 

Nearly 100 people came to the Chinese Christian Church & Center uniting in opposition to the proposed 76ers arena in Chinatown. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Attendees at Wednesday night’s meeting also questioned the city’s rollout of a plan to commission a trio of independent studies on the potential impact of a stadium on Market East.

Coalition members had worked on their own request for proposals for firms to do impact studies, said organizer Ellen Somekawa, who said they shared the 21-page document with the city and Councilmember Mark Squilla, in whose district the project would fall.

In comparison, the city’s RFP isn’t detailed enough and has too early of a deadline, Somekawa said. “It is suspicious having a [RFP] with such a quick turnaround … we’re skeptical to say the least.”

The coalition announced a march and protest planned for Saturday, April 29. It will kick off at 10th and Vine on that morning, according to Wei Chen of Asian Americans United. 

Will city studies examine ‘disruption of social and cultural life’?

Community members grilled Councilmember Squilla over the city’s plan to conduct independent studies — which was a surprise when it was announced earlier that day.

Organizers were under the belief that they would have direct input on which firms would conduct the studies, Somekawa told Squilla, and felt blindsided by the city’s announcement. The lawmaker countered that he’d passed on information from the groups and that it had been incorporated.

“We’ve added the information that you wanted into an RFP process,” Squilla said. 

“It’s not what this community was asking for,” Somekawa responded, reiterating concerns with the depth of study required in the city’s RFPs, saying the descriptions seemed to call for firms to do literature reviews instead of on-the-ground research. 

“I think it is,” Squilla replied. “One of the biggest requests [from constituents] was that we would not introduce any legislation until there were studies on the impact.”

District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla took questions from attendees during Wednesday’s event, addressing criticisms of the RFP process. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

The city-commissioned studies “will assess building design, community impact and urban planning, economic impact, and parking/traffic impact,” according to an overview posted by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

The coalition-developed RFP mentions other things to be studied, including mental health, community life and culture, and the “tangible or intangible” value of the neighborhood. One portion calls for examining the “disruption of social and cultural life,” stressing national and local history: “What has been the experience in Washington D.C., St. Louis, Oakland, Seattle and Boston … Locally, what was the experience of the Black Bottom?”  

The reference to Black Bottom, now called University City, connects to the current struggle around UC Townhomes — some organizers involved in that movement were in the crowd Wednesday night. 

(Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Squilla stayed for about an hour, fielding questions about contributions from the Sixers to his Council campaign (he says there are no contributions directly from the Sixers, but he’s unsure if any franchise employees are supporting him financially), requests for a commitment to oppose the arena if the bulk of Chinatown disagrees, queries about public trust in the wake of the news of the Jeff Brown investigation, and how often he’s met with the Sixers’ development team (“about four” times).  

He made it clear that the city-led studies will provide a critical step toward making a decision on zoning issues around the arena project. “After we get that feedback, we will decide if any legislation should be introduced,” Squilla said.

In the end, he walked off to applause and handshakes, even as it was clear some in the coalition felt betrayed by the day’s revelations. 

‘Trying to buy the mayor’s office’

People present at Chinese Christian Church Wednesday also expressed worry about the connections between mayoral candidate Jeff Brown and the Sixers.

David Maser, an attorney who organized a Jeff Brown-supporting super PAC and connected nonprofit, both called For A Better Philadelphia, has also worked as a consultant for 76ers ownership, The Inquirer reported. Maser worked directly on the development of the arena, called 76 Place at Market East

Maser, according to the complaint filed by the Board of Ethics, improperly arranged meetings between the Brown campaign and top Sixers brass. Redacted email correspondence exhibited in the case lays out the kind of coordination that is strictly illegal between candidates and political funding organizations that support them.

Brown called the investigation a “political hit job” at a Tuesday night mayoral debate, but also dodged direct questions on the investigation from NBC10’s Lauren Mayk. 

Anti-arena coalition members felt the revelations were just more of the same. 

“The arena proposal has been marked by bad faith from the beginning and the developers continue to prove they cannot be trusted,” said Xu Lin, owner of Bubblefish, in a statement released by the coalition. 

“The developers cannot claim they are listening to community input while at the same time attempting to secretly advance the arena with back door legislation and trying to buy the mayor’s office and a spot for their project in Center City.” 

Billy Penn is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly

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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...