South Philly and Center City groups announce opposition to Sixers’ arena proposal

The independent groups said they want City Council to stop the billion-dollar project from moving forward.

Opponents of the proposed 76ers arena in Chinatown display signs in City Council chambers

Opponents of the proposed 76ers arena near Chinatown display signs in City Council chambers on Sept. 14, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What you need to know

Five groups representing constituents in Center City and South Philadelphia are calling on City Councilmember Mark Squilla to block the Sixers’ proposal to build a downtown arena near Chinatown.

The independent groups — three Democratic wards and two registered community organizations — hail from Squilla’s 1st District, where the arena would be located if the Sixers can secure legislative approval from council. It is up to Squilla to introduce any measure needed before construction can start on the $1.55 billion project, including zoning legislation.

“I’m not necessarily going to live with construction on my block every week, but Center City is for all Philadelphians. I think we’ll all be impacted by the project in one way or another,” said Maureen Brown, the Democratic leader of Ward 39A in South Philadelphia.

The First Ward and Second Ward in South Philadelphia, and the Franklin Bridge North Neighbors and Center City Organized for Responsible Development, also announced their formal opposition on Monday.

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“We take all input seriously. And we take it under consideration as they share,” Squilla said. “We take that as part of our process in figuring out how to move forward.”

Residents and business owners in Chinatown overwhelmingly oppose the arena, and have also urged Squilla to not introduce legislation for the project. They fear an arena would destroy the 150-year-old neighborhood by decreasing foot traffic and increasing property values.

Brown said some resident feedback echoed that concern, while others are worried a downtown arena wouldn’t be as accessible as the Wells Fargo Center. And still others don’t want to see the Sixers leave the Sports Complex, where all four of the city’s major professional sports teams have played for decades, she said.

Brown, who has lived in South Philadelphia for more than a decade, is part of that last camp.

“We have such a rich culture in South Philadelphia. It certainly encompasses beyond the Sports Complex, but I think it’s an important part of our character,” Brown said.

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Kathleen Melville, a leader in the First Ward, agreed, saying the Wells Fargo Center provides “good jobs in a great arena.”

“Our city doesn’t need another arena that will sit empty most days of the year, when there are plenty of big projects that need to get done in our city. We should put people to work on new schools or new housing, but one thing we don’t need is another arena,” said Melville.

Support and opposition

The Sixers are tenants at the Wells Fargo Center, a facility they share with the Flyers. The team has said it wants a home of its own at 11th and Market Streets, in part because the franchise wants to avoid scheduling headaches in the future. The Sixers also say they need a state-of-the-art arena to be competitive in the NBA.

The broader pitch is rooted in economics. The team believes the project will not only generate new jobs and tax revenues, but that it will also help revitalize the blocks east of City Hall, a stretch that hasn’t thrived in decades despite millions in investment.

Community support for that vision is expected to inform how Squilla and his colleagues vote on the arena, which will likely require council to pass a large package of bills to get built. The legislative process could start as early as January — after a new City Council and mayor are seated.

“The 76ers have always said that we would not only participate in, but welcome, a public process and we are thankful to Councilman Squilla and the administration for moving forward in a way that promotes accountability. We look forward to working with the appointed RCO to carry out that process,” said a spokesperson for 76 Devcorp, the development team behind the proposal.

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, an influential nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving the neighborhood, is the appointed RCO for the project, said Squilla.

Monday’s announcement came as stakeholders await the results of two city-sponsored studies designed to evaluate the economic and community impacts of a potential arena. The analyses, which the Sixers are paying for, are expected to be completed this fall.

Squilla reiterated on Tuesday that the studies will be a big part of his decision-making process.

Groups are starting to publicly weigh in on the project regardless of the findings. Last week, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity announced the organization is backing the project, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Sixers during a news conference in Center City. The city’s trade unions had previously voiced their support for the project, saying it has the “potential to change the economic landscape of Philadelphia.”

76 Devcorp also provided a statement from Democratic ward leader from South Philly that wants a downtown arena.

“The 76ers proposal has the potential to revitalize Market East and create small business and job opportunities for communities of color across the City. I’m supportive of the project as are many people in my community and across the City. I urge all elected officials to consider the merits of the project and support this historic investment in our city.” said Anton Moore from the 48th Ward.

Clark Dingman, president of Center City Organized for Responsible Development, disagrees.

“We believe that the proposed arena is incompatible with the neighborhood including Chinatown, Market East, and Center City Philadelphia. We unanimously feel that this project would have a negative impact on businesses and residents in Center City,” said Dingman in a statement.

The Sixers hope to open a new arena in 2031, the same year the team’s lease expires at the Wells Fargo Center.

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