July 20, 2023
The Philadelphia 76ers will fund at least two of the city's studies on the potential impacts of the Center City arena that the team hopes to build on Market Street, replacing a portion of the Fashion District mall.
The three studies were touted in April as an independent effort to evaluate the economic effects, building design and community impact of the $1.3 billion proposal, which has drawn steady opposition and skepticism in neighboring Chinatown.
The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., a public-private economic development agency, was given sole discretion over the selection of the consultants chosen for each study. That process was overseen by an advisory committee made up of officials from various city agencies and designated community representatives.
The 76ers say that apart from setting up a blind fund that PIDC can use to pay consultants, the team has no direct influence on the studies and has relinquished any involvement as part of its agreement with PIDC. The team's willingness to cover the costs, rather than taxpayers, is in line with its intent to privately fund the 18,500-seat arena, a team spokesperson said.
But news that the Sixers will pay for studies meant to be independent — $655,000 for the two studies, the Inquirer reported Wednesday — angered some of the team's critics in Chinatown who feel the process has been secretive ever since the proposal was announced a year ago.
"The funding mechanism for these studies should have been transparent from day one," said Mohan Seshadri, executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance. "Why wasn't this made public immediately? Why did the city and the Sixers want to hide who was paying for these studies? 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."
The city likened the funding arrangement to a higher-level version of the permit fees that developers pay when applying for the authorization of construction projects. The fees reimburse the city for the cost of reviewing building plans and ensuring that projects are in compliance with government requirements.
"Similarly, when a proposed project is so large and complex that independent reviews are necessary, it is not out of the ordinary in the development field – and is common practice in cities across the country – for the developers to pay the cost of these reviews as well," city spokesperson Joy Huertas said.
When the city revealed plans for the studies in April, there was no mention of the 76ers paying for them. But Huertas said the payment structure was communicated with community members and their representatives during meetings.
There has been only one large public meeting in Chinatown, a tense gathering in December that prompted David Gould, the 76ers chief diversity and impact officer, to leave when he said he was only able to answer questions without giving his presentation on the project. The team has touted a $50 million community benefits agreement and its desire to be a partner with Chinatown. But by the time the meeting was held, the community's wariness had built up over a lack of information and attempts by the Sixers to fast-track city approvals for certain aspects of the development.
City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district covers the arena site, remained at the December meeting and made assurances to those in attendance, Seshadri said.
"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," Seshadri said.
76ers part owner David Adelman, who is leading the arena development efforts, has said the studies need to be done independently to maintain credibility.
"I'm glad the city is doing it, because if someone thought I did it, they'd think I had my thumb on the scale," Adelman said during an appearance on a Crossing Broad podcast. He also discussed the opposition to the arena and the public perception of the project.
On Wednesday, the city disclosed the consulting firms that PIDC selected to conduct the community impact assessment and economic analysis. The goal of these two studies is not to provide recommendations, but to produce final reports that spell out the various arena scenarios analyzed by the consultants.
The community impact assessment will be led by BJH Advisors, a real estate planning firm, and Sojourner Consulting, a local firm that previously has worked with the city on issues in immigrant-based communities, including Chinatown.
The two firms will look at various demographic, cultural and economic factors in Chinatown by engaging community groups and stakeholders. They also will look at direct environmental and quality of life issues involved in the construction of an arena.
A traffic impact analysis prepared on behalf of the 76ers by Langan Associates is currently under review by the city, PennDOT and SEPTA. Although separate from the PIDC-led studies, the findings of the traffic analysis will be given to BJH as part of the community impact analysis, the city said.
The economic analysis will be conducted by CSL, a facility advisory and planning firm that has led similar studies on other professional sports arenas.
A timeframe for the completion of the impact studies is not yet clear, but could be developed and spelled out this fall.
With Friday marking one year since the arena plan was introduced, community members opposed to the arena plan to gather at Chinese Christian Church & Center to demand accountability from decision-makers in the city. A spokesperson for the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena said Wednesday that this pressure will increasingly be directed toward Squilla, whose powerful role in determining land-use in his district could make or break the project.
If the arena plan gains approval, the 76ers hope to begin demolition work at the mall in 2026, followed by construction beginning in 2028. The team aims to move into the new building in 2031, when its lease at the Wells Fargo Center expires.