City Council’s role in the battle over the Sixers’ plan to build an arena on Market Street is returning to the fore after the body’s summer break.
Anti-arena organizers made sure to elevate the issue this week as they welcomed Councilmember Mark Squilla back to City Hall for Council’s first fall session. Squilla represents the area in which the proposed arena would be built, and his action will be needed to move required zoning ordinances forward.
On the same day, Council returned, the Sixers announced a change of plans, stating that the development team was no longer aiming to see all the necessary legislation passed by the year’s end.
Both sides are waiting to see the completed trio of city-commissioned studies that will flesh out the hard details on the project design, potential economic impact, and levels of community support for the project.
This week also saw a public jab from the owners of the Wells Fargo Center — where the Sixers currently play, and which would like to keep them as a tenant — accusing 76 Devcorp leadership of making untrue statements to sway public opinion in favor of the new arena.
How did we get here, and what are the details on the current state of affairs?
This timeline has the answers. We’ll keep it updated with new developments and links to fuller coverage of the Sixers’ announcements, pro- or anti-arena organizing, and the wider response to the possibility of 76 Place across Philly.
Prelude: The Penn’s Landing Bid
August 2020: Sixers franchise majority owner HBSE proposes a series of properties along the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing, including an arena to be sited on the waterfront between Market and Chestnut streets.
The 18,500-person capacity of the arena is the same as the current plan, but the Penn’s Landing proposal includes an office building, 205 rental units and 18 condos, 900 parking spots, and more.
The plan to pay for the $4 billion investment on a site actively being marketed for development is very different from the future Center City plan to not take any tax breaks or use public funding: it would draw $785 to $885 million from Neighborhood Improvement Zone financing, an arrangement that lends government bonds (aka taxpayer dollars) towards developments, which are paid down as increased tax revenue flows in from the site.
September 2020: The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation selects the New York-based Durst Organization’s proposal to build housing, a hotel, retail space, and more on the Penn’s Landing site, making the Sixers proposal moot.
July 2022 – January 2023: It begins
July 21, 2022: The Sixers announce plans to build 76 Place, an arena between 10th and 11th that the team hopes to open in time for the 2031 season. A now-deleted FAQ page outlines some of the questions the organization saw coming down the pike, including the question of financing — from day one, the Sixers make clear they intend the arena will not cost taxpayers a dime.
Sept. 24, 2022: Asian Americans United hosts Philly’s Chinatown’s 27th annual Mid-Autumn Festival. Anti-arena signs and infographics are numerous among dances, drums, and celebrations.
Nov. 13, 2022: Following one-on-one meetings with various Chinatown organizations, Sixers executive Tad Brown and lead developer David Adelman (and their team) visit Chinatown to meet with more than 200 residents and people involved in business or civic associations.
Nov. 18, 2022: Later that week, Adelman leads a media tour of the proposed arena site, and stresses that the team is aiming to have a $50 million community benefits agreement signed in spring 2023, with all appropriate legislation passed by June 2023. He also notes the response he received from people repping Chinatown is “neutral to positive.”
Dec. 7, 2022: A bill introduced by Councilmember Mark Squilla — “on behalf of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration,” per the Inquirer — includes language requiring a garage operator to agree to potentially removing Filbert Street between 10th and 11th, part of the proposed arena site, from the grid.
The seemingly lowkey legislation prompts a flurry of calls from Chinatown-aligned organizers to not vote on the measure, and the language is struck from the bill.
Squilla tells reporters that “outside attorneys who were working closely with the administration” recommended the language, and a few weeks later the Inquirer reports that Hercules Grigos, a lawyer working with the Sixers, sent Squilla a revised version of the bill with the controversial language.
Dec. 14, 2022: Over 20 Chinatown organizations host a public meeting on the arena plan, inviting the Sixers and officials. The organization sends Gould, the diversity officer, and the team from Mosaic Development Partners, who are partnering with the Sixers on the arena project. Councilmember Squilla also speaks at length.
The Sixers reps are occasionally drowned out by discontented attendees, and eventually leave prior to the meeting’s end. At this meeting, Squilla promises 30 days of review and comment from community members about any legislation affecting the proposed site — a promise anti-arena organizers will stress in the following months.
Jan. 9, 2023: A formal coalition to oppose the arena is announced nearly a month after the Dec. meeting, and boasts of support from over 40 organizations within Chinatown. At the same press conference, held inside Tom’s Dim Sum Restaurant, WHYY News obtains an anti-arena petition signed by over 90 local business owners.
March – June 2023: Politics, scandal, positioning
March 16, 2023: The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation makes waves announcing its opposition to the arena plan, based on surveys the PCDC conducted in the neighborhood. According to the PCDC’s findings, 93% of business owners, 94% of residents, and 95% of visitors oppose the arena.
March 23, 2023: The Sixers hold a press conference at South Restaurant and Jazz Club, announcing the support of the African-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) of PA, NJ, and DE and some of Philly’s Black clergy.
Gould is on hand to lead the presser, and announces:
- An entity called Everybody Builds, a partnership with Philly anchor institutions, developers, unions, and contractors to prepare Black building trades workers to compete for construction contracts as they are announced.
- A partnership with the AACC, launching a $2 million fund to prepare Black owned businesses to operate in the arena.
- A promise that 40% of food and beverage concessionaires in the arena will be Black owned businesses.
April 10, 2023: The Philadelphia Board of Ethics files a lawsuit against Jeff Brown, a candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, alleging that he improperly coordinated with a political action committee supporting his candidacy — and that a “professional sports team” gave $250k to the organization.
The lawsuit includes details about how David Maser, an attorney who had consulted for the Sixers on the arena plans, wrote to Brown’s campaign “on behalf of the development team” two weeks after Brown announced his candidacy and scheduled a time to meet on Jan. 4.
April 12, 2023: Two days later, there’s another Chinatown community meeting. Additionally, the city announces it’s commissioning a trio of independent studies on the arena plan hours before the meeting kicked off.
Organizers cite the move as “suspicious” for having a 60-day turnaround time, shorter than the period included in draft RFPs that Chinatown-based organizers shared with the city earlier in February, suggestions that the city eschewed.
April 27, 2023: Anti-arena organizers drop off 15,000 petitions and more than 3,300 signed postcards at City Hall, all against the proposed arena. After a brief rally outside, organizers go inside to hand-deliver the notes to councilmembers.
May 9, 2023: Anti-arena organizers make a more concrete critique of the city’s plan to study the proposal with the help of local volunteer experts. The group’s critique of a Sixers-commissioned traffic impact study can be found here.
“This is not a very serious set of impact studies that they are requesting,” Domenic Vitiello, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, tells WHYY News.
May 16, 2023: The day before Philly’s mayoral primary, residents of the city’s First District — repped by Squilla and where the arena would be located — share some interesting Election Day door hangers that were paid for by Philly’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. The ad encourages voters to support the building of the arena as well as Squilla and Cherelle Parker — the eventual winner of the primary, who was backed by the union.
May 31, 2023: As AAPI Heritage Month comes to a close, organizers in Chinatown send letters to Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, asking them to commit to opposing any federal funding for the project, and inviting them to come to Chinatown to hear from community members themselves. The letters can be read here.
June 6, 2023: The Philadelphia Board of Ethics fines CBL Real Estate — the lobbying arm of 76 Devcorp — $4,000 for filing incomplete disclosure records concerning 76 Place lobbying efforts over the past year. CBL Real Estate admit there were omissions in two 2022 lobbying reports and amend them as part of the Ethics Board’s judgment.
June 7, 2023: The Sixers share the first new renderings for 76 Place since the project’s announcement nearly a year before, demonstrating more about how arena logistics might be managed.
June 10, 2023: An anti-arena march draws out thousands of supporters, who wind their way through Chinatown down to City Hall in the largest in-person mobilization against the plan to date. The police initially say 500-700 people turned out, but video and photo evidence make clear that’s an underestimate.
July – August 2023: Council interregnum, studies, new arena plans
July 19, 2023: The city announces the consultants for two of the three impact studies it commissioned and reveal the Sixers will be paying for the studies in line with their promise that no public funds (from Philly taxpayers) will go towards the project.
News that the Sixers were funding the studies raises concerns in Chinatown, and organizers express their doubts about the independence of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation-led studies. Kevin Lessard, a PIDC spokesperson, stresses that PIDC “retains all control over selection and management of the consultants with no input from the Sixers.”
July 22, 2023: A year after the initial announcement of the plan, anti-arena organizers hold a press conference that largely focuses on Councilmember Mark Squilla. Given Philly’s tradition of councilmanic prerogative, the choice to pass zoning variance and other legislation making the arena official largely rests on his shoulders.
“If you do the wrong thing, we will never forget,” says Debbie Wei, founder of Asian Americans United.
July 27, 2023: The Sixers announces updates about the potential project site and the preexisting tax abatement for the site that the organization plans to revoke.
Most of the updates align the 76 Place plans with local precedent for how professional sports venues relate to local and state government, but the plan to remove the site from a Tax Increment Financing structure — upon demolition and conveyance of the land to the Sixers — set to expire in 2035 is a voluntary move made to generate more tax revenue than would have been otherwise.
Aug. 1, 2023: The Inquirer publishes an interview with Comcast Spectacor Chairman Dan Hilferty, who heads the organization that owns Wells Fargo Center. Hilferty pushed back on the Sixers’s description of life as a WFC tenant as rife with limitations making a new arena clearly the right move. In response, a Sixers spokesperson said “it’s disappointing that Comcast Spectacor has attempted to upend our plans” while pledging to remain a good tenant until 2031.
Aug. 9, 2023: The Sixers announce the addition of a 250-unit mixed-income residential tower to the arena plans, which developers say is being included based on feedback from area stakeholders. The team promises to make 20% of the units (up to 79) affordable, though what “affordable” means in this case is still being worked out.
“We don’t have a specific number in terms of what the AMI-mix is going to be for that building but that will be something that we determine as we have additional conversations,” said Gould in an August webinar.
Aug. 10, 2023: The Sixers announce a series of public Zoom webinars where they will share information about arena plans, with separate meetings set to be conducted in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. You can view a recording of the video presentations that were played at the beginning of each session here.
Aug. 20, 2023: The steering committee of the Design Advocacy Group (DAG), a coalition of 2,100 Philly-area building industry professionals, releases a statement critiquing the Sixers’ plans on the grounds that “it will make matters worse” for Market East.
The letter describes an arena as good for a “once-in-a-while adrenalin jolt,” not the sustained business that the corridor needs. Sixers spokespeople dispute the claims, citing their plans to bring concerts, community events, and other non-NBA functions to 76 Place.
Aug. 22, 2023: The Sixers’ Mandarin language Zoom webinar goes poorly, according to Chinatown-based anti-arena organizers. They say that simultaneous translation efforts failed due to poor pacing, particularly in the Q+A session.
“The interpretation was garbled and didn’t make sense,” said Michael Wang, who owns a business in Chinatown, in a statement. “We left early because we couldn’t understand anything the developers were saying.”
Aug. 25, 2023: Another group of local building industry professionals, the Building Industry Association, comes out in support of the arena plan. Lead members of the BIA, which represents over 400 real estate firms, cite the potential of the project and their confidence that the Sixers can iron out all the concerns raised by community activists and the DAG.
“It’s no secret, Market East is dying,” Mo Rushdy, BIA vice president, tells the Inquirer. “This project is exactly what this corridor needs.”
September 2023 – Present: Inquirer takes down story, Council returns
Sept. 8, 2023: The Shift, a human rights nonprofit that advocates against homelessness and unaffordable housing, issues a statement of concern regarding the arena plans.
Shift shares letters sent to Adelman, Harris, and Blitzer on July 31 and August 10. The letter highlights the troubled community engagement process to date, and ultimately states that the plans “may be inconsistent with international human rights law.” The note specifies Shift’s belief that “the right to adequate housing, the right to participate in cultural life, and the right to a healthy environment” may be at risk.
A Sixers spokesperson points out inaccuracies in the letter and points to the residential tower incorporated into the arena plan, though Shift’s first letter came before that announcement with the second sent less than a day after that information was shared.
In a rare move, The Inquirer digitally publishes and then swiftly takes down a story (you can still read the article here) on the letter without issuing a retraction of any kind. Days later Gabriel Escobar, the paper’s editor, tells Philadelphia Magazine that the piece “in hindsight, required more context and more reporting.”
Sept. 12, 2023: Court of Common Pleas Judge Joshua Roberts throws out the Philly Board of Ethics case against the super PAC that supported former mayoral candidate Jeff Brown, whose connections to the Sixers came under deep scrutiny before the May primary.
None of the facts of the case were disputed by the board or the PAC, so the decision came down to defining when someone has to abide by rules set for candidates for office vs. those for private citizens.
Roberts deemed Brown’s 2022 coordination with the super PAC to be allowed as he had not yet declared his mayoral candidacy — even if it was openly known that he was planning on it.
Sept. 14, 2023: Anti-arena organizers rally at City Hall the morning Council resumes work for its fall session, catching Councilmember Squilla on his way into the building and within its chambers, asking questions about the process to come.
Squilla appears to indicate that legislation approving the Sixers’ plan is already being drafted. He reiterates his promise to share the drafts with the community 30 days before potentially introducing it in Council. Squilla’s staff clarifies that the councilmember won’t support policy that faces blanket opposition from all community stakeholders — not just blanket opposition in Chinatown.
And the Sixers push back their timeline for passing all enabling legislation to 2024, the second time the team has rejiggered expectations. Councilmember Squilla tells the Inquirer he’s glad to hear the news, as he’s been telling 76 Devcorp their deadlines were too early “for a long time.”
This story was originally published Aug. 16 and has been updated.