‘Do the right thing’: Opponents of Sixers arena urge Squilla to stand with them

The call comes a year after the Sixers announced its proposal for the $1.3 billion project on Market Street.

People hold signs that read Councilmember Squilla will you keep your word? Another person holds a sign written in Chinese.

Members of the Chinatown community joined by supporters marked the one-year anniversary of a proposal to build a basketball arena in Chinatown with a press conference denouncing the development process on July 21, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Calling the project an “existential threat,” opponents of the Sixers arena proposal gathered Friday to urge City Councilmember Mark Squilla to honor his commitment to the community and not introduce the zoning legislation developers need to start building.

During a packed community meeting in December, Squilla told the crowd that he would only “move forward” with a bill if residents supported the legislation after having an opportunity to review the measure.

“If you do the wrong thing, we will never forget. It will be remembered that, in spite of your promises and the desires of most of the city, you destroyed Chinatown,” said Debbie Wei, founder of Asian Americans United, during a news conference in the neighborhood.

Debbie Wei speaks into several microphones.
Organizer Debbie Wei talked about Philadelphia Chinatown’s resistance at a press conference that marked the one-year anniversary of a proposal to build a basketball arena in Chinatown with a press conference denouncing the development process on July 21, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wei’s vow came on the one-year anniversary of the Sixers announcing the team wanted to leave its home in South Philadelphia and build a $1.3 billion arena — dubbed 76 Place — along Market Street, less than a block from Chinatown.

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Activists organized the news conference to mark the occasion, and to reassert their opposition to the arena despite losing “faith in this process.”

Two days ago, the city announced the Sixers would be bankrolling three impact studies designed to independently evaluate the team’s proposal, a fact opponents fear will yield findings favorable to developers. Critics have previously raised concerns about the studies, saying the  request for proposals for them were written in a way that makes the arena seem like a “foregone conclusion.”

Dr. Walter Palmer holds a sign that reads No Arena.
Dr. Walter Palmer who fought for the Black Bottom in West Philadelphia joined Chinatown community members and other supporters in denouncing the the proposed Sixers arena in Chinatown on July 21, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Common sense knows that now that [76 Devcorp] is paying for the study, their influence is greater than if they weren’t,” said Rev. Robin Hynicka, who leads Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City.

A person waits on the sidewalk at 10th and Vine streets.
10th and Vine streets in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In a statement, a spokesperson for 76 Place said the studies will show “how much of a benefit a new arena will be for the City, its workers, neighboring businesses and taxpayers.”

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“The new 76 Place will be the single largest privately funded development in City history, generating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of additional tax revenues as it serves as an anchor of the revitalization of Market Street East,” according to the statement.

In an interview, Squilla said his decision to introduce — or not introduce — zoning legislation for the arena will be based on the findings of the impact studies. If the results are a mixed bag, he said he would “maybe” move forward with a bill and let the legislative process play out.

People gather at the front of a room. A projector shows a black-and-white photo.
Community organizations in Chinatown along with business owners and clergy held a press conference denouncing the process of developing a basketball arena in their neighborhood and calling on Philadelphia council member Mark Squilla to listen to the community on July 21, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

That would include a public hearing, a committee vote, and two separate votes by the full City Council.

“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.

The three-term lawmaker said he doesn’t have a personal opinion about the arena proposal one way or the other.

“If I was opposing it, why would we have all these studies done? And if I was supporting it, why would we jump through all these hoops if we’re saying we’re gonna do this anyway?” said Squilla.

A sign on a telephone pole reads "No Arena in the Heart of Our City."
A sign in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood denounces the proposed Sixers area. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

City Council reconvenes in September.

The Sixers want to move into the new arena in 2031, the same year the team’s lease ends at the Wells Fargo Center.

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