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Could The 76ers Ever Make Chinatown Happy With Their Arena Plan?

The Philadelphia 76ers want to build an arena where part of the Fashion District Philadelphia mall sits, on the edge of Chinatown. That much is certain.

But little else about the proposal, dubbed 76 Place, is set in stone. Though the team already has ideas about the arena’s placement, integration with the streetscape and transit infrastructure, plus a tentative price tag of $1.3B, the most uncertain part of the arena idea is the one that could prove its undoing: the effect of its construction and operation on the surrounding area, specifically Chinatown.

And a growing number of residents and organizations view the project as an issue of cultural life or death.

A rendering of the Philadelphia 76ers proposed new home on Market Street, between 10th and 11th streets. Plans call for a green roof and solar panels.

Already, a coalition of local civic and business organizations has been formed to oppose the proposal, aptly named the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena. CCOA held a press conference Jan. 9 to announce its formation and reveal a petition from a majority of Chinatown businesses against the idea of an arena. 

The same day, a separate steering committee for neighborhood organizations held its first meeting, also focused on local business owners: the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., the neighborhood’s Registered Community Organization when it comes to development entitlements.

“We’re reacting to the idea that the arena is coming, but we need to react to some concrete issues about the arena,” said PCDC Executive Director John Chin, who led the steering committee's formation. “We’re sort of collecting facts and putting together our coalition, because at this point, we just have this idea we don’t like, and this fear of a cultural dilution or dissipation of the last ethnic neighborhood in Center City.”

CCOA and its petition laid out that fear in the starkest possible terms, with dozens of signatures under a statement that a new basketball arena would “destroy Chinatown.” 

“When I talk to them, I can feel they really don’t like bigger things coming here to destroy Chinatown,” CCOA founding member YingZhang Lin, who runs the Philadelphia operation of life insurance company World Financial Group out of a Chinatown office, said to WHYY about the neighbors he approached about the petition. “People want [Chinatown] to stay. I can see this is a very clear message.”

Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose District 1 encompasses the arena site and Chinatown, is one who is listening. Any arena at the proposed site would require special legislation from Philadelphia City Council to move forward, and the Philly tradition of councilmanic prerogative means Squilla is effectively the gatekeeper for the project.

Squilla said he won’t allow it to move forward without support from his constituents.

“I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now, and every controversial development project goes through the same process,” he told Bisnow. “We’re going to work the same way and allow the community to have its questions asked, have meetings, and they’ll eventually get to me when the meetings are done with a consensus for or against, or something in the middle, I don’t know.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

76 Devcorp, the entity formed by the team to lead the arena effort, has offered to spend $50M on a community benefits agreement — a contract spelling out the benefits a community will receive in return for supporting a developer's project.

Though construction on the arena would not start for several years even under ideal circumstances, 76Devcorp hopes to finalize an agreement this June.

But negotiations have yet to begin and frustration has already built in Chinatown over a lack of information from the 76ers.

76ers Devcorp CEO David Adelman and Harris-Blitzer Sports and Entertainment CEO Tad Brown speak with reporters on the proposed site of the Philadelphia 76ers' new arena

During a press tour of the arena site in the fall, 76ers part owner and 76 Devcorp CEO David Adelman said the majority of Chinatown stakeholders with whom he had spoken were “neutral to positive” on the idea of an arena. That prompted business owners and civic organizations to band together, forming CCOA with the help of the national nonprofit Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, WHYY reports.

So far, the only official interaction between the team and Chinatown residents has been a December meeting put together by an informal group of local organizations.

As 76 Devcorp Chief Diversity and Impact Officer David Gould attempted to answer questions and compile ideas for what residents would want out of a community benefits agreement, an agitated crowd of hundreds at the packed Ocean Harbor Restaurant on Race Street broke out into frequent boos and chants denouncing the arena idea.

“When David Gould went to that meeting in Chinatown, we weren’t even allowed to present,” Adelman told Bisnow in a Jan. 12 interview with Gould. “He just had to stand there and basically get tomatoes thrown at him.”

That means that while 76 Devcorp has publicized some specifics, like the redevelopment of Fashion District and the purchase of the Greyhound bus terminal building next door, the company has little to report on how it will make good on promises to work with local businesses as vendors, sponsors, partners or otherwise.

Its principals say they want to observe best practices by listening first rather than dictating arrangements.

“It would be foolish and improper for us to say that we know what Chinatown needs better than they do,” said Adelman, who has volunteered to help fill gaps in the capital stack for Chinatown-based developers seeking to build affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“The goal is for us to meet with groups like PCDC and ask, ‘What do you think the area needs, what sites would be good for affordable housing, and how can we help make that happen?’” he said. “There’s a reason we’re announcing this nine years in advance. It’s to give time to collaborate with everybody.” 

Affordable housing is always a tantalizing proposition in CBA negotiations, and Chinatown residents have indeed listed rising home prices, property taxes and other concerns common to gentrification among their fears in public comments.

But the inclusion of local input and neighborhood-based developers doesn't necessarily guarantee the area’s interests would be served from such an arrangement, Chin said.

“As developers, we have to be careful what we wish for, because not every type of development would be in service of preserving authentic Chinatown,” Chin said. “We’ve seen developers based in Chinatown develop new residential units, but they’re not geared toward people who want to live in Chinatown for its authenticity. They built units for short-term stays; that’s not the kind of development that gets people who are invested in Chinatown.”

76 Devcorp partnered with Mosaic Development Partners, the Black-owned rising star of commercial development in Philadelphia, in part because of its track record of delivering complex projects in underserved neighborhoods that prioritize community inclusion and equity, Adelman told Bisnow in November. 

Adelman said he wants 76 Devcorp to begin delivering the community benefits that his public-facing efforts have prioritized before arena construction would even begin. And though the timeline may be longer in this case, community benefits flowing ahead of a development’s construction is standard for larger projects, Squilla said.

“If you’re going to be part of the community, you need to start by investing in the community,” Squilla said. “All of those things are part of the development process, and if anything is going to be as big as an arena, you definitely need to spend some resources before you’d have the project approved.”

Philadelphia's Chinatown Friendship Arch, seen in 2005

Amid some accusations that the 76ers are involved in the steering committee and some business owners spurning it to join CCOA, the “general mood” of the first meeting was in opposition to the arena, though it was more informational, Chin said.

76 Devcorp had no hand in the steering committee’s formation and has yet to receive any correspondence from it, Adelman and Gould said.

“We do hope the feedback will be shared with us so we can help work with the community,” Gould said. “It’s not for us to dictate in what form that’ll be shared with us.”

Chinatown’s Future In The Balance

Other downtown sports venue developments in recent years have faced concerns about surrounding areas, but the fight in Philly is more than a revitalization versus gentrification debate.

Even if the 76ers spend millions and satisfy every element of the most friendly community benefits agreement imaginable, it still may not be enough to prevent the essence of Chinatown from being irrevocably diluted, according to critics.

Adelman and Gould say they’re invested in preventing Philly’s Chinatown from suffering the same fate that befell its counterpart in Washington, D.C., after the construction of what is now Capital One Arena — a recurring concern voiced by all parties in Chinatown, even those who haven’t come out in opposition to the 76ers’ proposal.

Three former residents of D.C.’s Chinatown penned an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in October to tell Philadelphians the cautionary tale.

“Our neighborhood has lost its sense of place, vibrancy, and culture,” wrote Harry Guey-Lee, Eddie Moy and Jack Lee in the Inquirer column. “Where there was once a bustling community filled with restaurants, groceries, hair salons, and other small businesses, today we count fewer than 15 Asian-owned businesses remaining in the core of Chinatown, which has essentially dwindled to one block: H Street. There is not a single Chinese grocery store in Chinatown. There are Chinese characters on chain restaurant signs, but no Chinese people on the street.”

Beyond the Chinatown Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch streets in Philly, a bustling neighborhood of Chinese-owned business still stands, serving Chinese customers. Crucially, they are joined and visited by those of Korean, Japanese and several other Asian heritages, Chin said.

“We are all about preserving this hub of authentic Asian culture,” he said. “It’s called Chinatown, but all sorts of Asians come here to celebrate their own cultures. We’re a minority in the city, but when you come to Chinatown, regardless of which part of Asia you identify with, you feel like the majority. 

“It’s important for young people to feel this experience as being part of a majority, because your comfort level shoots up. It feels like a place of sanctuary, of feeling like nothing bad can happen to you.”

The D.C. arena was built in 1997, and every part of the development ecosystem is more sensitive to community impact, and cultural concerns more broadly, than it was 26 years ago — at least in Philadelphia. 

“We understand where opposition comes from and why there are concerns for this project,” Gould said. ”Something we’ve been trying to get across is that we’re here to help.”

That starts with the $50M figure quoted by Adelman, which Squilla called an “astronomical number” relative to the average spent by developers on CBAs in Philly.

It also extends to promises made to have neighborhood businesses as vendors in the stadium and to promote those businesses to event attendees. The 76ers and parent company Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment could even throw their weight behind legislation that could protect small businesses from larger corporate interests, Adelman said. 

Whether such measures would be effective is impossible to know at this point, which is why a research study on the potential impacts, from economic to cultural, is at the top of Chin’s priorities for the steering committee. 76 Devcorp has agreed to the idea, with Squilla’s support, though no specifics have been worked out.

“Not everything’s for sale,” Squilla said. “If the CBA wouldn’t address the [arena’s] negative impacts, then you can’t support it, but if that money allows the community to continue and thrive, then maybe it moves forward.”

With community signoff so central to the success of the 76ers’ arena plan, it should be no wonder that the organization is so invested in community engagement and going so big with its promises.

But as the first wave of opposition showed, there may be literally nothing the team can do to make its arena coexist with a thriving Chinatown.

“It’s not just about an amount of money; it’s got to be more than that to preserve Chinatown,” Chin said. “Because if there’s no Chinatown, what can Asians identify with?”