76 DevCo presents to a large audience at the Sheraton Center City. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

As the Sixers made their case Thursday night for a Center City arena, rallying supporters around the union jobs and economic revitalization they say will follow, activists chose to quietly protest the plan.

The Thursday meeting was actually the first convened by 76 DevCo, the team’s development arm, which is pledging to put forth a huge community benefits agreement to get the deal done. 

Instead of a big confrontation, anti-arena advocates spent time strategizing on real-world tactics to slow the proposed development, which is expected to be a major issue during the start of Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker’s term.

“If zoning legislation does go through that allows for an arena that is meant to destroy the neighborhood, then what we are going to do is … use the law to support the people,” said Bethany Li, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has decided to dedicate resources to the fight. 

76 DevCo invited the public to the Sheraton in Center City in large part to combat misinformation about the proposed arena — dubbed 76 Place — ahead of what seems to be a crucial period for the plan’s prospects. 

Developers hope to see all needed zoning approvals passed through Council over the winter, while opposition to the project is expanding beyond Philly’s Chinatown, the core of anti-arena sentiment and action: The leaders of Wards 1, 2, and 39A have come out against the plan, while some residents of  Washington Square West are making their disapproval increasingly apparent.

That doesn’t sway 76DevCo chair David Adelman, who stressed his confidence heading into a key period of the project. 

“I think people are entitled to their opinion, but our support has drastically grown as well,” Adelman told Billy Penn earlier in the day, pointing to support from 48th Ward Leader Anton Moore and hinting that more endorsements will roll out soon. 

The meeting came on the heels of 76 DevCo’s announcement of a collaboration with Parkway Corporation, a major player in the local parking infrastructure industry. The partnership promises to bring still-developing technology online that will allow fans to reserve parking spots as they purchase their tickets, optimized to be in the available space closest to their route of arrival.

Two days prior to the Sixers’ meeting, members of the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena met at Chinese Christian Church to combat a quite different form of misinformation they’ve recently dealt with — a belief among their neighbors and allies that plans for the arena are already a done deal. 

Union presence, muted protests seen and heard at Sixers meeting

Over 500 people came out to a conference room in the Sheraton, with more than half of attendees wearing the gear of unions — many locals within the Eastern Atlantic Council of Carpenters, IBEW Local 98, SEIU 32BJ, among others — that have endorsed the project and would compete for contracts related to 76 Place.  

Philly-based entertainment executive Dyana Williams emceed the event, which was also translated into Mandarin.  

Adelman and others leading the design, community engagement, and other aspects of the arena walked through much of the same presentation used in virtual information sessions held earlier this fall, so a suitable substitute for the information shared last night can be found here

There was new information shared as well, including statements from the city’s Asian American and African American Chambers of Commerce, who are neutral and supportive of the project, respectively.

“We’re enhancing Jefferson Station and the experience around it,” said JJ Rivers, a senior associate with Gensler, the design firm working with 76 DevCo. This emphasis is one that various members of the Sixers’ development team have stressed, including Alex Kafenbaum, head of development at Harris-Blitzer Sports and Entertainment (HBSE). 

“Not only is it cheaper for people to take transit, but it will also result in an $11 million boost for the transit agencies,” said Kafenbaum, in reference to SEPTA and PATCO, a number derived from their projection that 40% of fans will ride transit to 76 Place on any given night. 

The meeting was a generally muted affair, as Williams requested that the crowd hold any interruptions, either cheering or booing. 

Pointing at a display of an in-arena rendering of the arena, Rivers delivered one of the few applause lines from the evening: “Imagine you’re in that space watching the 76ers win a championship.” 

The largest round of applause was saved for when Adelman mentioned 12,000 unionized construction jobs projected to be attached to the arena. 

Some fairly quiet demonstrators pushed back against the message the Sixers were working to share: During the community engagement portion of the presentation, five pairs of demonstrators silently held banners that read:

  • “11 jobs for Camden at Sixers HQ? – Can’t trust this process”
  • “’$0 cost to Philly taxpayers.’ Who pays for infrastructure?”
  • “$1B in new taxes? Show the math.”
  • “‘Privately-Funded’? State/Federal $$ is still public.”
  • “Gambling at 76 Place? Odds are yes.”

Four sets of silent protestors were swiftly escorted out without incident, though they were allowed to come back into the venue as the Q+A began. 

While union members arrived in force, hundreds of them filed out before all the information was presented, and before the Q+A portion of the evening began.

“It’s not over yet”: Anti-arena organizers keep the midnight oil burning

Two days prior, Tuesday, around 50 people met in a Vine Street church. The crowd was a mixture of Chinatown residents, Center City clergy, members of Save the UC Townhomes, and residents of Pennsport, Bella Vista, and Washington Square West, among others.

Organizers said they began hearing whispers that the arena plans had already been fully approved, which some chalked up to a relative lull in 76 Place news since the summer. As they gathered, those with an anti-arena stance announced plans to make the still-unapproved status abundantly clear.

The primary public facing way that will be done is through a two-week small business support effort in Chinatown being called the “Show Your Love” campaign. 

From Jan. 26 to Feb. 4, the coalition will manage a promotional and marketing campaign for participating businesses, while strategizing with them to craft coupons and special deals. 

In exchange, local businesses will make their anti-arena stance impossible to miss, hanging “No Arena” and “Show Love” posters in their windows, having staff wear anti-arena pins during the campaign, and utilizing a host of other promo materials including placemats, cup holders, and coalition-made newsletters.     

Attendees also stressed vigilance in the face of what some thought was a lost cause. Bethany Li, legal director of the AALDEF — a seasoned organization that has worked with Chinatowns up and down the East Coast — stressed the options she’s exploring. 

Ellen Somekawa, a longtime organizer in the neighborhood, raised alarms about the $50 million community benefits agreement that the Sixers are crafting — the largest sum for a CBA in Philly history. 

Somekawa raised the prospect of false or illegitimate signatories claiming to represent the will of Chinatown, pointing to previous, similar development fights in the region.

“This is so important because Councilman Squilla wants the community benefits agreement in place in order to make it easier for him to support the arena,” said Somekawa. “Any group, or even a fake group, can sign a community benefits agreement with the developer, and the developer will use this as proof that the community supports the project.” 

It’s not an outlandish concern: Somekawa pointed to the CBA signed in relation to the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets. Multiple outlets have reported on the tendency of CBA signatory organizations related to that and other NYC projects becoming defunct shortly afterwards or simply disappearing — that’s not to mention struggles with CBA implementation

But details of the Sixers’s CBA as it relates to Chinatown are still unclear, in large part because of the neighborhood’s robust opposition. 

David Gould, Chief of Diversity at HBSE, spoke to concerns about a CBA during Thursday’s Q+A, promising that the Sixers would make it a legally-binding document.

All of the groups that have vouched for aspects of the Sixers’ still-forming CBA are organizations with long histories in the city. 

What comes next?

There’s much more to come as it regards 76 Place, and likely soon, if 76 DevCo’s planned timeline for zoning approvals is anything to go by. But there are still a range of questions that area residents and others are waiting for answers on — questions that directly connect to the potential impact of an arena. 

What follows are just a few, with answers provided by Adelman and Gould.

How affordable will the affordable units in the connected residential tower be?

In August, the Sixers announced the addition of a 250-unit mixed-income residential tower to 76 Place plans, as a result of feedback from area stakeholders. 

The development team promises to make 20% of the units (up to 79) affordable, but the area median income (AMI) that will determine what “affordable” means for the property still hasn’t been set. 

“We’re still working on that,” said Adelman. “We’re still working to, candidly, finalize the residential building. We have a concept, still mapping out the final unit count. So these are all things that we’ll continue to refine.”

Gould added that 395 units is the “upper limit” of capacity for the tower, and that the affordable units “could represent up to a 20% increase in the number of affordable units in that census tract.”

What’s 76 Place’s shelf life?

This question was raised on Tuesday night, as anti-arena organizers pointed to the roughly 30 years that the Sixers have called Wells Fargo Center — which opened in 1996 — home. There, speakers suggested that most stadiums last 25-30 years, figures which have typically held true. 

It’s a new era, says Adelman: “Technology’s changed, building materials have changed. We anticipate at least a 40-50 year life as is, without major reconfiguration.”

How will the impact studies play into this?

City-commissioned, Sixers-paid impact studies looking into the economics, design, and community impact of 76 Place have been the shoe waiting to drop on this entire situation: Many elected officials have said their stance on the project will largely rest on the contents of the reports, and Mayor-elect Parker’s desire for a “cost benefit analysis” of 76 Place may well largely take the form of the PIDC-managed review process. 

After crowdfunding to find a second opinion, the anti-arena coalition announced on Tuesday that it would pay for a separate economic analysis, and plan to publicly “interrogate the assumptions” made in the reports that will be released by the city in the coming weeks.

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...