Rubber hits the road for Sixers’ arena proposal with marathon design review

The team announced its plans more than a year ago, but the official part of the process is just getting started.

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Philadelphia's Chinatown neighborhood is seen at 10th and Cuthbert streets

File photo: A 76ers basketball arena is proposed adjacent to Philadelphia’s Chinatown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What you need to know

In July 2022, the Philadelphia 76ers made a big announcement. After more than 25 years in South Philadelphia, the franchise planned to pack its bags and move to a new basketball arena in the heart of Center City.

Since then, the team has released a series of architectural renderings, pitched the $1.55 billion project to community stakeholders, lobbied lawmakers, and bankrolled a pair of highly-anticipated impact studies — all while facing stiff opposition from residents and business owners in nearby Chinatown, who fear the arena will drive swift gentrification that will destroy the 150-year-old neighborhood.

The public approvals process is just getting started, however. And a lot needs to happen before construction can start on 76 Place, which the team hopes to open in 2031.

Let’s take a look at where we are in the process.

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Hours of scrutiny

The team’s proposal got its first official city review this week.

On Monday, 76 Devcorp, the arena’s development team, and architecture firm Gensler presented a “master plan” for the project to the city’s Civic Design Review committee. The advisory group, composed of architects and planners, provides feedback on proposed developments early on in the approvals process. And while developers are not required to adopt the committee’s recommendations, they are strongly encouraged to incorporate them into their designs before finalizing them.

During a marathon virtual meeting, presenters focused on issues related to how the arena would function in the neighborhood during events, including parking, pedestrian access, and loading zones. Separate reviews will center on the arena’s design, as well as the residential tower the Sixers want to build on top of the facility.

Feedback from committee members was largely critical. And everyone who offered public comment during the hearing — roughly 30 people — took issue with the project, with several participants questioning the location and the need to leave the Sports Complex.

“Why are we causing so much distress to our citizens when we’re under so much stress already? Why are spending all this time and activity on something we all know doesn’t make any sense?” said Tinamarie Russell, director of the North Central Philadelphia CDC.

The Sixers are proposing an 18,500-seat arena on Market Street between 10th and 11th streets – on top of SEPTA’s Jefferson Station. The mixed-used development, which would feature restaurants and retail on the ground floor, would replace a third of the struggling Fashion District mall.

The decision to leave the Wells Fargo Center is primarily about basketball. The Sixers argue the franchise needs a state-of-the-art arena to compete — to sign top-tier players, contend for championships, and keep fans in the stands.

But the team also says they want to be on Market Street because they believe a new arena would help jumpstart the blocks east of City Hall, an underutilized corridor that has struggled to thrive despite millions in investment. It’s part of the reason why the master plan calls for five retail spaces and a team store on the ground floor of the facility with the arena above.

“We think this is the spark that can ignite some of that other development, particularly as it’s a private investment,” said Alex Kafenbaum, head of development for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Sixers, during Tuesday’s meeting.

Committee members scrutinized that part of the team’s vision, in large part because the arena is only expected to have events roughly 150 days of the year. The list includes basketball games, but also concerts and community events. And it’s unclear how much activity the space would see on non-event days.

“Having those great linkages to public transit is wonderful, but we do want to make sure that we entice people that visit on all times. Not only visit within the building but also entice them to the stores and the shops and the restaurants that are in and around the facility,” said CDR chair Michael Johns.

“It’s not gameday. It’s what happens the rest of the time,” he said.

Asked if the facility would be dark on those days, Sherveen Baftechi, head of design and construction for the team, said there would be lights on, but also mentioned the team’s commitment to the facility being sustainable and “operationally green.”

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Next steps

Other questions focused on what happens during event days, including the flow of people in and out of the arena both before and after events. Committee members asked about the amount of outdoor space for people waiting to get into the facility, as well as the game plan for when events let out.

The development team told the committee Market Street would not need to be shut down when there is a game or concert. But there are proposed street closures for 10th and 11th streets on those days, said Jack Conviser, a city planner with the Philadelphia Planning Commission, during the meeting.

After more than six hours of discussion, the CDR committee voted to extend the review process to give the development team an opportunity to respond to the questions and concerns raised during the meeting.

The Sixers hope to start demolition work in 2026 and vertical construction in 2028.

Before that can happen, the team will need City Council to pass a package of zoning legislation, and likely a host of related measures. For example, any developer seeking to build an arena needs a variance. The Sixers also want to close Filbert Street between 10th and 11th streets for a public promenade. Striking a street from the City Plan also requires legislation.

Under the tradition of councilmanic prerogative, City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes the proposed arena site, would need to introduce any arena-related bills. The third-term lawmaker has said his decision to introduce — or not introduce — legislation for the arena will be rooted in the findings of two forthcoming impact studies commissioned by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation on behalf of the city.

The city was expected to release the studies, which will evaluate the arena’s economic and community impacts, before the end of the year. They are now scheduled to come out sometime next year.

“If it comes back and says, ‘Hey, listen, it doesn’t work in this location. The city can’t sustain two arenas of this size, or whatever comes back and says, it just isn’t feasible, then I would say, ‘Yeah. I mean, it’s very possible that it wouldn’t be introduced,” said Squilla in July.

The legislative process is expected to play out this winter — after the next City Council and mayor are sworn in.

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