Philadelphia Inquirer: What’s next for the Sixers proposed arena? Experts will weigh in on whether a new venue makes sense
By Jeff Gammage
Separate studies on economic- and community-impact are expected by the end of the year — just before a new City Council and mayor are seated in January.
Supporters and opponents of the Philadelphia 76ers’ proposal to build a $1.55 billion basketball arena on Market Street have lots of questions about what it would look like, how it would function, and what it would mean for the surrounding neighborhoods and for the city as a whole.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and the city’s public-private development agency, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., have hired consultants to provide answers.
Separate studies on economic- and community-impact are expected by the end of the year — just before a new City Council and mayor are seated in January. This month the administration also retained consultants to help address the design of the building itself.
Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the district where the arena is proposed, said he hoped the studies would provide information that will help City Council determine the best direction.
Who are these consulting firms, and what are they analyzing?
Economic assessment and projections. In July, sports-and-entertainment specialist CSL International was hired to carry out the economic assessment and projections. The Sixers say the project will provide a huge economic boost, including generating $1 billion in new tax revenues for the city, state and school district. Kenney administration officials said they would evaluate that claim.
The developers say they will take no city money but are open to accepting state and federal funds.
Part of CSL’s task is to examine markets that have more than one arena, a big question for Philadelphia, where the Wells Fargo Center is finishing a $400 million renovation. The Sixers say the city is missing out on loads of concerts and shows, but others believe that adding a second, similarly sized venue will sink them both, leaving each with one sports team and forcing competition for other events.
Community impact. The community-impact study is being handled by firms including BJH Advisors, a New York real estate planning company, and Philadelphia-based Sojourner Consulting. The aim is to examine the most-impacted neighborhood, Chinatown, but also to explore an arena’s influence on other residential and commercial entities, including Washington Square West and the Fashion District mall.
Arena design. Convergence Design LLC and Ian Smith Design Group were brought on this month to help the city Planning Commission when it reviews the proposed design. The work will study facades, entrances, access to retail space, pedestrian experiences and crowd circulation, in addition to the effect on Jefferson Station, since the Sixers intend to build atop the transit hub.
Convergence Design is based in Kansas City, Mo., and focuses on the architecture of places where large numbers of people gather. Its founding principal, David Greusel, worked on PNC Park in Pittsburgh, home of the Pirates, and on Minute Maid Park in Houston, where the Astros play. IS-DG, as it’s known, is based in Fishtown and has been involved in the Vare Recreation Center, Independence Beer Garden, and Joe Frazier’s gym.
Unlike the other consultants, Convergence Design and IS-DG will not produce a report. Instead they’ll advise the city on an as-needed basis.
Have the Sixers submitted a detailed design of the arena?
Not yet. “We’re focused on obtaining the necessary entitlements and approvals for the arena,” said Nicole Gainer, a spokesperson for the team on the project. “We will begin the design process in earnest once we have approvals.” City officials say the team has provided renderings, diagrams, drawings, and plans for some aspects of the project. A complete set of plans, the city said, would not be required unless and until the arena moves forward to the permitting process.
Who is paying for the city studies?
The Sixers. Critics say that’s a conflict-of-interest, one that casts doubt on the outcome of what the Kenney administration promised would be independent analyses. City officials say the team has no say in how the studies are compiled or in their results. They asked the Sixers to create a pool of funds to pay consultants as a way to save money for taxpayers.
The first two studies were estimated to cost $655,000. City officials said the design consultants, on their as-needed basis, will be paid up to $200,000. Had the city chosen to pay for the studies itself, that money would have amounted to a tiny fraction of Philadelphia’s $6 billion budget.
Will the studies be made public?
Yes, according to Squilla. He’s a key player in the discussion, because having the project in his district makes him responsible for offering, or not offering, what would be arena-enabling legislation.
What do Chinatown leaders think of the studies, since the arena would be adjacent to their neighborhood?
Chinatown advocates say the work has been framed to endorse the construction of an arena, not to ask whether one should be built.
“We want a systematic analysis, not a justification,” said Neeta Patel, interim executive director of Asian Americans United, an advocacy group.
The neighborhood has launched a GoFundMe, trying to raise $50,000 to hire its own consultant, who would focus on one key issue: the economic impact of an arena on the neighborhood, area and city.
Why do the Sixers want to move?
The team says that like any business, it wants the ability to own its building and to control and benefit from everything that goes on inside. At the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, the Sixers are a tenant to arena owner Comcast Spectacor, which also owns the Flyers. Sixers co-owner David Adelman says that the Wells Fargo Center, which opened in 1996, is old and outdated and that a new arena would move Philadelphia forward while revitalizing a ragged stretch of East Market Street.
What does the Sixers’ landlord, Comcast Spectacor, think of the studies?
“It will tell whether it makes sense for the Sixers to move to East Market,” company chairman Daniel Hilferty told reporters this month after a tour of the Wells Fargo Center’s new team areas.
Comcast Spectacor believes its renovation turned the center into a state-of-the-art arena, one that will last for at least another decade. Still, Hilferty said, the company is willing to work with the Sixers to build a new, jointly owned arena in South Philadelphia and to do it faster than the team’s 2031 timeline.
“We’d like to paint a vision that may entice them to reconsider,” he said.
On Thursday Comcast Spectacor launched a marketing campaign to tout the “New Wells Fargo Center,” featuring television commercials, a website and social-media advertising that highlight the changes at the arena and its future as “an anchor for broader investment in South Philadelphia.”
How important are the studies to whether the project goes forward?
Pretty important, certainly in terms of gaining political approval. “I’m hoping these studies will decide where to go,” Squilla said.
Mohan Seshadri, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, said he’s preparing for the release of “studies that have been carefully shaped and pruned to support and justify the arena.”
At the same time, important does not mean decisive. It’s a big project, and many different organizations are weighing in and taking action.
On Monday five Center City and South Philadelphia groups representing voters and residents in Squilla’s district called on him to block the project. And on Tuesday the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed right-to-know requests seeking information from nine city and state agencies about meetings between elected officials and project developers.
Building trades unions strongly support the arena, embracing its promise of 9,000 construction jobs. And this month the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity endorsed the project, saying it offers opportunity to African American residents and to the city overall.
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