The proposed 76 Place arena would extend to the corner of 10th and Cuthbert Street in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Philadelphia 76ers have a new expense to list in their pursuit of a Center City arena: the cost of studying its potential impact. 

Philly’s NBA franchise will bankroll at least two of the three studies that the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation commissioned in April, The Inquirer first reported — at the city’s request, to avoid spending tax dollars on the arena effort.  

Along with the price tag for the two studies — upwards of $650,000 — the city announced the consultants who’ll conduct them. Contractors include a local firm that has previously worked with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, and a Minneapolis-based company that helped pave the way for other basketball arenas, including Boston’s TD Garden.

Impact studies are common for large and complex development projects in urban areas, but the revelation that the Sixers will foot the bill has heightened concern, activists said.

“I was shocked when I first heard the news,” Debbie Wei, one of the lead organizers of the anti-arena Save Chinatown Coalition, told Billy Penn. 

Residents and business owners in Chinatown, the nucleus for organizers trying to stop 76 Place from being built, were taken aback by the initial April announcement that the city would commission independent analyses. They had submitted a proposal to conduct an environmental impact study in February, but the Philadelphia Planning Commission turned it down. 

It’s unclear how much these impact studies will sway Councilmember Mark Squilla. Squilla reps the district where the arena proposal is sited — near 10th and Market streets — and the Philly tradition of councilmanic prerogative means he has de facto say over land use ordinances there. 

The 76ers paying for the studies doesn’t mean they will have any influence over the results, said PIDC spokesperson Kevin Lessard, maintaining that the analyses would be independent of any bias.

“PIDC retains all control over selection and management of the consultants with no input from the Sixers,” Lessard told Billy Penn.

“We ask for patience and understanding from all interested parties including the community, the developers and the public at large,” Mayor Kenney said in a statement that also clarified an earlier point of concern: the 60-day turnaround time PIDC initially stated in its request for proposals is being extended. 

“We want to do this right, so we need to let the selected firms do their work over these next several months,” Kenney said, indicating that the studies would take longer than the original two-month timeframe. 

What studies are being conducted, and by whom?

The three studies to be contracted out by PIDC deal with the design, economic analysis, and community impact of a Center City arena. While the cost and consultant for the design study are still being determined, there’s now more info on the latter two.

Real estate planning firm BJH Advisors will be conducting the community impact study in partnership with Sojourner Consulting, a local firm that has worked with city government on gathering community feedback for the city’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. 

Sojourner founder Sarah Yeung, a Central Jersey native who attended the University of Pennsylvania, is known for her work with Philly’s Chinatown community, according to past press coverage.

Sarah Yeung speaks at the Housing Futures Month gathering at the Asian Arts Initiative in April 2023. (D1L0/PolicyLink)

The budget for the community impact study is $530,625. Incorporating at least one public community meeting, individual and group conversations, and research, it will consider the following:

  • Chinatown and the importance of cultural identity.
  • Shifts in the demographic and socioeconomic data of the study area.
  • Data on commercial and residential real estate development in surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Local economic and physical conditions of the study area. 
  • The history of major developments in and around Market East. 

The area of interest, as indicated by a PIDC Q&A published in connection with this study, isn’t just Chinatown, but includes “neighboring residential and commercial communities such as the Fashion District, Jefferson, Midtown Village and Washington Square West.”

Additionally, the PIDC community impact study will incorporate information from a Langan Associates transit impact analysis that was commissioned by the Sixers as part of a public agency review being handled by PennDOT, SEPTA, and the city. 

The economic analysis for the arena will be conducted by CSL International, a firm that has consulted for a series of major stadium developments. The budget for this study is $125,000. 

“We look forward to applying our team’s vast knowledge and expertise to provide a robust economic analysis that will be helpful and informative,” said Ben Wrigley, CSL’s Chief Operating Officer. 

For some idea of the firm’s pedigree, Wrigley has served as a consultant on projects ranging from the Milwaukee Bucks’ new downtown arena to Manchester City FC’s planned stadium expansion to the Tampa Bay Rays’ new ballpark plans.

Do major developers typically take on these costs?

For the average urban development, the process is somewhat simple. 

Developers pay for a building permit, and the city reviews the plan to ensure compliance with the construction code. The permit fee tends to cover the cost of the time the city spends reviewing the proposal.

When it comes to projects of extraordinary scale that necessitate independent review, like a downtown arena, the math changes. In these scenarios, particularly with developers who boast of privately funding their projects as the Sixers have, development firms commonly pay for project-related studies. 

Though not perfectly analogous, the entertainment development firm Oak View Group commissioned impact studies in relation to Acrisure Arena, an American Hockey League arena and entertainment venue it owns and operates in partnership with the NHL’s Seattle Kraken and LiveNation. 

The opposite can also be true, depending on the degree to which a development has public support. Some studies on a new Buffalo Bills stadium — widely noted for its $850 million public subsidy — were commissioned by Empire State Development, a government entity.  

‘Red flag concerns from the start’

Wei, of the Save Chinatown Coalition, believes there have been too many surprise announcements around the arena planning. She cited lowkey legislative pushes, campaign finance scandals, the team’s swift contracting of the land for the former Greyhound Bus terminal, and then this news about the 76ers financing the studies. 

The concerns raised in Chinatown are no different from the qualms that often come with major developments, she said.

“I always feel like people think that we’re a bunch of left wing loonies,” said Wei. “I think we’re basically asking questions any community would ask, but are appalled at what we’re seeing … I’ve been shocked by how dirty this looks.”

That the Kenney administration requested the Sixers pay for the studies hasn’t blunted the criticism.

“If having those who stand to make a fortune off an arena fund studies to justify that arena’s existence was proper and appropriate, Mayor Kenney would have announced the funding source when he announced those studies back in April,” Mohan Seshadri of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance said in a statement. 

“In a meeting with community members Squilla enthusiastically agreed with the need for independent studies and emphasized that the Sixers shouldn’t pay for the studies because of the appearance of bias.”

The Inquirer’s reporting states that Squilla was initially opposed to the Sixers paying, but came to agree with the city’s aim to avoid spending taxpayer dollars on arena-related research. 

“Before I would have said it’s up to the Sixers to win our trust,” said Wei. “Now, I’m feeling like it’s up to the Sixers AND the city to win our trust.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated the Sixers had already acquired the former Greyhound terminal property.

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...