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76ers Adjust Arena Timeline, Won't Get Zoning Approval Until At Least Next Year

The Philadelphia 76ers' arena plan will have to wait a few more months to clear its first major hurdle.

A new rendering of the Market Street side of 76 Place as of Aug. 9, showcasing a raised arena floor and a more open, glassy facade.

After months of public statements claiming to require legislative approval for the 76 Place proposal by fall, 76 DevCo is now willing to wait until early next year for a package of zoning bills to be introduced by District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla, spokesperson Nicole Gainer said in a Sept. 13 statement reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thursday morning, before Philadelphia City Council's first legislative session of the fall, advocacy groups both in support of and opposition to the arena were out in force at City Hall. Both groups are well aware that councilmanic prerogative leaves the proposal's fate in the hands of Squilla, whose council district includes the arena site.

Arena protesters confronted Squilla as he entered City Hall. He told the group he is still waiting on 76 DevCo to send his office the proposed legislation, which is now unlikely to be heard until January, the Inquirer reports. Squilla reiterated his promise to release the proposal to the public at least 30 days before he introduces legislation in council.

In an official comment, Gainer brushed off the timing adjustment and referenced the need to complete a series of feasibility and impact studies being conducted by consultants selected through a city request for proposals and largely funded by the 76ers.

“We have said from the start that we will follow the city’s lead and we’re willing to take the time to get this right. That’s why we announced the project eight years in advance,” Gainer said in a statement Wednesday night, referring to the team’s plan to open a new arena in 2031. “While we will continue to work with urgency, we believe that a winter legislative process will likely make the most sense to allow time for the studies to be completed.”

Protesters from the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance confront District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla (foreground, right) over the Philadelphia 76ers' proposed arena outside Philadelphia City Hall Sept. 14.

The past few weeks have seen a public charm offensive from 76 DevCo, the arena entity formed by 76ers parent company Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. The campaign is intended to prove the company can be a good neighbor and mitigate concerns of cultural disruption, displacement and gentrification.

In late July, the company offered to donate the land on which it plans to build 76 Place to the city and to opt in to a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan akin to one already in place at the South Philly Sports Complex. A revised design proposal that included the addition of an adjacent mixed-income apartment building followed two weeks later.

Starting in mid-August, 76 DevCo held a series of virtual public meetings. Officials like 76 DevCo Chairman and 76ers part owner David Adelman and 76 DevCo Chief Diversity and Impact Officer David Gould went over the 76 Place proposal and the highlights of a community benefits agreement, to which it has pledged to commit at least $50M.

Adelman declined to comment to Bisnow.

Squilla has said he will not introduce the needed legislation without some level of community support, but the focus of public engagement has been on Chinatown, which borders the arena site to the north. And dozens of community groups have rallied in opposition to the arena since it was proposed over a year ago.

A rendering of 76 Place, the Philadelphia 76ers' proposed arena on East Market Street, updated to include the proposal for a $250M, 395-unit apartment building with 20% affordable units.

Company officials answered questions submitted through an online anonymous form in the Zoom calls, but did not allow attendees to speak, appear on camera or use the app's chat function. The format was heavily criticized by advocacy coalition group Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance for the level of control exerted over the public engagement process.

Gould and Adelman said that such control was necessary in order for the company to fully explain its plans without being shouted down.

During one of the virtual meetings, Adelman said the reason 76 DevCo needed zoning legislation passed by the end of 2023 was due to the uncertain future of Fashion District Philadelphia, the downtown mall that would need to be partially demolished to accommodate 76 Place. The remaining mall would then be significantly redeveloped for integration with the arena. 

Fashion District is owned 50-50 by PREIT and Macerich, with the latter holding decision-making power over the property. Macerich and 76 DevCo have an informal agreement in place wherein 76 DevCo would buy the portion of Fashion District that would be torn down for the arena and partner in the ownership and redevelopment of the remaining mall, Adelman said.

But with PREIT teetering on the edge of financial ruin and Fashion District itself having never reached expectations, a bankruptcy could tie the arena site up in litigation, Adelman said on the August videoconference call. With the legislative timeline now pushed to January at the earliest, that bankruptcy risk could be elevated.