In Philadelphia, the Chinatown champions fear a new arena for the 76ers

Deborah Way first wore a “No Stadium in Chinatown” T-shirt emblazoned with red English letters and Chinese characters in 2000 when she helped sink a baseball stadium for the Phillies.

It carried an updated version a decade later, with the word “Stadium” crossed out and replaced with “Casino” when local opposition derailed a Foxwoods project.

Now Ms. Wei and other activists are putting on a third edition to fight what they fear is the most serious threat yet: a $1.5 billion plan to build a 76ers basketball arena, six inches from the southern border of Chinatown.

“I don’t know what’s next,” said Ms. Wei, a 66-year-old educator who co-founded the community group Asian Americans United in the 1980s.

Philadelphia, a city so closely guarding its history, is grappling with how to shape the future of its storied hub, where, like so many others, business has struggled and disorder has grown amid the pandemic. And now, with a new mayor about to be sworn in to lead the city of 1.6 million and a package of laws related to the Sixers arena expected soon, the project is entering a key stage.

For the Chinatown champions, the proposed arena fits the pattern of a land grab, paving the way for yet another sports development project. Philadelphia reminds them of what happened in Washington, D.C., St. Louis and other cities when gentrification and redevelopment shrank or wiped out downtown Chinatowns.

Chinatowns often sprung up in the cheapest and least desirable areas, born of racism and xenophobia. But those same urban enclaves have become so desirable that their longtime residents are being displaced. The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Philadelphia’s Chinatown as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2023, along with Seattle’s Chinatown International District, which is facing pressure from a transit project after was sandwiched between two sports stadiums.

But for the Sixers, construction unions and some business leaders, the arena promises to create jobs and revitalize an unwelcoming stretch of downtown Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest big city, which is just a 15-minute walk from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell .

If the neighboring neighborhoods don’t benefit, the project will be a failure, said David J. Adelman, a billionaire part-owner of the 76ers who chairs the 76 DevCo development team. When he was growing up, his family had Sunday dinners in Chinatown at the Riverside Restaurant, which has since been replaced by Ocean City. So the sign that graces 10th Street Plaza — “This is, was, will be Chinatown” — feels personal.

“I got chills when I walked past this place for the first time,” Mr. Adelman said during an interview at the Wells Fargo Center, the current home of the 76ers, before a game against the Lakers. “Understood. We’ll do this right. We’re going to honor that and respect that and find a way to make it better.”

The 76ers first floated the idea in July 2022 and presented the latest version to a controversial city planning panel earlier this month. The city is expected to release its own impact assessments soon, which the Sixers are paying for at the city’s request. That arrangement drew criticism, but the city said it hired the consultants to do the work “without the Sixers’ involvement.”

In January, Cheryl Parker will succeed Mayor Jim Kenney and become Philadelphia’s first female mayor. While Ms. Parker, a former Democratic representative and City Council member, has yet to endorse the arena project, construction unions are among her staunchest supporters.

Ms. Parker told reporters after her victory in November that she would prioritize “the community across the city” in making a decision, not a particular neighborhood.

“You can’t have a project with this potential as it relates to economic impact and not hear the voices of the people in our city,” she said.

Still, the project is hardly a fait accompli, thanks to a powerful mix of naysayers such as city planners, progressive groups and the city’s biggest corporate titan, Comcast.

The 76ers currently share the Wells Fargo Center with the Flyers; both are owned by Comcast, which also owns NBC Sports Philadelphia, the broadcaster of Sixers home games. The arena is part of a sports and entertainment center off Interstate 95 where the Eagles and Phillies play and where the city will host its World Cup games in 2026.

The Sixers’ lease expires in 2031. In an interview, Daniel J. Hilferty, chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, the sports and entertainment division, said the company wants the Sixers, who play 41 regular-season games at home, to remain at your place. But Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the Camden, New Jersey-based company that owns the team, said the Sixers will be gone in 2031.

Instead, they want to be at the center — just like other NBA teams — and control revenue from games, concerts and other events. Hence the plan for an 18,500-seat arena three blocks from City Hall.

The current project, they stress, will not reflect the development of Capital One Arena in Washington, home of the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals. Washington invoked eminent domain to build the arena in 1997, and only 10 percent of the businesses and organizations survived the cataclysm. And now the owner of the Wizards and Capitals wants to move the teams to a new proposed sports district in Alexandria, Virginia.

“What happened in Washington was terrible,” Mr. Adelman said in November at a public forum. “It should never have happened and it won’t happen here.”

Paul R. Levy, the chief executive of the Center City District, a business improvement organization, said he hoped the arena would benefit the Market East area, which once boasted a half-dozen department stores. Now only Macy’s remains.

“What Market East needs is a large-scale capital event,” he said.

But Domenic Vitiello, a professor of city planning and urban development at the University of Pennsylvania, said countless studies have concluded that sports projects have not revitalized downtowns or added significantly to cities’ tax bases compared to the cost of public subsidies.

“This is the consensus of honest, independent experts — not the consulting firms hired by teams and cities to justify investments that end up harming cities and communities,” said Mr. Vitiello, who has written about the “planned destruction” of Chinatowns in North America.

Polls show that more than 90 percent of business owners, residents and visitors to Philadelphia’s Chinatown, home to about 3,000 people in 20 city blocks, oppose the arena. Among the concerns: congestion, skyrocketing rents, displaced residents and businesses and erosion of the cultural character of Chinatown.

Chinatown leaders staged protests drawing thousands of people and filed dozens of open-records requests for communications between developers and government officials.

During a tour of the arena site, David Gould, chief diversity and impact officer at Harris Blitzer, acknowledged the tension. But he said he was proud, as a black native of Philadelphia, to partner with a black-owned firm (which is also backed by a Sixers co-owner) with a track record of helping underserved communities.

In Philadelphia, land use proposals usually require the support of a local council member. For the Sixers’ proposal, that’s Mark Scylla, a Democrat elected in 2011. He said he’s weighing whether the community can be preserved “whole” and protected from “negative impacts.”

“This is the most lobbied project I’ve ever been involved in,” he said.

Chinatown has an abundance of murals and plaques commemorating battles for a freeway, a prison, a convention center, and more throughout its 150-year history.

What emerged from the “history of struggle” was the Charter of Folk Arts and Cultural Treasures, according to director Feng Lim. Opened in 2005 inside the defunct Phillies Stadium, the K-8 school has 500 students from 43 zip codes, 64 percent of whom qualify for free lunch.

“We are all part of this ecosystem and the connections are what we try to preserve and protect and fight for,” Ms Lim said.

Earlier this year, Vancouver hosted a conference for leaders of 18 North American Chinatowns, including Philadelphia, looking at disruptive developments that “exacerbate the struggle of low-income people to find affordable housing.”

If there had been such a conference in the 1960s, St. Louis’ Chinatown known as Hop Alley would have been featured.

With 300 people in Hop Alley businesses providing 60 percent of the city’s laundry services, Chinatown “played a huge economic role,” said Huping Ling, a professor of history at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.

But the area was turned into a parking lot for Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals — which was demolished in 2005 to make way for another Busch Stadium.

“Chinatown is completely and physically gone,” she said. “It was tied.”

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