Inside David Adelman’s Controversial Plan to Bring the Sixers to Center City
The billionaire developer has big plans to turn the failing Fashion District mall into a glimmering basketball palace. But first, he’ll need to convince the neighbors that it won’t be one giant boondoggle.
On a Monday afternoon in October, David Adelman stands at the corner of 11th and Market streets, imagining an alternate universe. He points across the street at fast-fashion retailer Primark, its logo glowing windshield-wiper-fluid blue in the distance. “So this,” he says, “is where the arena would go.”
Before we can consider the world in which there’s a $1.3 billion arena for the Philadelphia 76ers on the site of the Fashion District mall in the heart of Center City, however, we must face reality. Adelman, in a military green bomber jacket, dark pants and stylish leather boots, his mane of thick black hair perfectly combed back, begins to walk down Market Street. He passes a row of uninspired single-story retail — his future neighbors, if all goes according to plan. There’s a dismal Panda Express, a methadone clinic, a boarded-up Reebok store, and a closed-down pawnshop with a large red dumpster in front.
The Sixers have been trying to move for a while. In 2020, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the two New York finance billionaires who own the team, proposed building a new arena, plus 10 residential towers, on Penn’s Landing. They also wanted more than $800 million in public subsidies. When that staggeringly bold plan flopped, the Sixers approached Adelman, who has more than a little development experience as CEO of student-housing behemoth Campus Apartments, to dream up an entirely new arena project. One of the reasons Harris and Blitzer were so keen to move was simple: Billionaires prefer to be landlords, not tenants, and the Sixers were paying rent to Comcast for the right to play in the Wells Fargo Center. The 26-year-old facility was quickly becoming obsolete — especially by the standards of the NBA, which has seen a spate of extravagant new arenas open in recent years. In turning to Adelman, Harris and Blitzer enlisted a professional landlord to help make themselves into one.
Adelman also came highly recommended by Michael Rubin, CEO of sports-apparel company Fanatics and, until recently, holder of the team’s third-largest ownership stake. If the Penn’s Landing proposal failed because it featured an out-of-town developer and a request for public subsidies, this time would be different: Adelman, who’s 50, has spent his entire life, except for four years at Ohio State, in the Philly region. A lifelong Sixers fan, he’s had four courtside seats by the team’s bench for years. He told Harris and Blitzer, “The only way I’d be interested is under the following circumstances: One, we can’t take any city money. And two, we can’t threaten to leave the city.” Harris and Blitzer agreed.
With that, Adelman was in. He started scouting potential sites, including around 30th Street Station and at Spring Garden and Front streets. Eventually, he landed on Market East and the idea of demolishing the western half of the Fashion District mall, a hideous gray box that has about as much appeal as the abandoned retail across the street from it. The site has advantages: It’s a transit hub, with more than 220 different stops — from the Market-Frankford Line to Regional Rail to PATCO — feeding into Jefferson Station, which sits beneath the mall. And Adelman felt this stretch of Market Street was an under-utilized no-man’s-land, the missing link between Old City to the east and the shiny high-rise offices to the west. “I thought it was a civic obligation to help fix up the city and add an economic-development driver,” he says. The Fashion District owners, who’d poured $400 million into renovating it right before the pandemic hit, were all too willing to have their monument to poor decision-making taken off their hands.
Now Adelman turns left and crosses the street to head into the mall, grinning as we ride an escalator down to the bottom level. With a wild look in his eyes, he declares that we’re now standing courtside. Where we’re actually standing is in a passageway between SEPTA’s Jefferson Station and the mall. “You’re going to be able to come out from the train station, enter into the arena, and then walk up,” he says. If it’s built, the 18,500-seat space will disrupt and transform Center City in equal measure. If everything goes as planned, it will open in 2031, when the team’s current lease expires.
If. If if if. There are lots of them. Just one block from the proposed arena is Chinatown, a tight-knit community of 3,000 Asian Americans that’s been bisected, disrupted and nearly destroyed by various projects undertaken in the name of urban renewal and vague notions of the greater civic good. Few people in Chinatown are cheering the arena proposal. At their most sympathetic, they’re open to the possibility of it being built while also deeply fearful that the project will jolt property values, displace residents and business owners, and erase the soul of the neighborhood. At their least sympathetic, they’ve rejected the arena altogether and are organizing against it. Adelman has been meeting with community members in hopes of coming to an agreement on how the team can support Chinatown’s future and, as it recently pledged in a local ad campaign, “be a great neighbor.” Without such an agreement, the project may well die in its infancy. City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the area, says he “doesn’t see a way forward” without the agreement.
Adelman doesn’t feel daunted by the stakes. Why should he? He’s been on a winning streak lately: Tapped to build this project, he also recently struck a deal with Rubin, one of his best friends, to buy out most of Rubin’s 10 percent stake in the franchise. Adelman is now the third largest owner of the team he rooted for as a kid. And he may just get to build their new home.
Still, Adelman has never done anything like this before — not even close. His own family was skeptical, his wife and two daughters asking if he knew how to build a project on this scale. He told them, “No, but I’ll figure it out!”
“I’ve built apartments, I’ve built hotels, I’ve built retail, I’ve done all the components of this,” Adelman says. “How many guys in the U.S. have built an arena? Twenty? Fifty? So I was like, ‘Why not me?’”
Before the Sixers announced plans for the arena, Adelman met with a number of Chinatown groups and community members to privately share what the team had in mind. He explained that by developing an existing commercial property, he wouldn’t be displacing any residents; in fact, he told them, the Sixers want to increase affordable housing in the neighborhood.
Reactions to his outreach were mixed. John Chin, head of the influential Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, a nonprofit that’s developed more than 600 affordable housing units in the neighborhood and funded other projects, was confused. “My brain could not comprehend how the arena would fit on that site,” he says. His fundamental view was — and still is — that “arenas and neighborhoods don’t mix.” According to Adelman, former City Councilmember Helen Gym’s initial response was that she should have been informed of the project earlier. (A Gym spokesperson says Adelman mischaracterized this conversation and that her main concern was over a lack of community engagement.) Asian Americans United, a long-standing activist group that previously organized against proposed Chinatown developments — Gym was once a member — didn’t have any reaction at all: It wasn’t informed beforehand. “Throwing a big proposal to Chinatown without asking the opinion of Chinatown — it’s not fair, and it’s not respectful,” says Wei Chen, the group’s civic engagement coordinator. (Adelman and the Sixers have since met with group members.)
Adelman says he never bulldozed in with ultimatums and always intended to incorporate the community’s feedback; it simply wasn’t possible to meet with every community group before the announcement. “I’m the kind of person that if I made a mistake, I would own it,” Adelman says of the rollout. “There’s nothing about this I would do differently.” He thinks the arena still has more supporters than not. “If you looked at my LinkedIn page the day we announced, 95 percent of the comments were positive,” he says. “The texts I got from business leaders, community leaders, restaurant owners: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
But Adelman comes into Chinatown as an outsider, and his first step didn’t exactly engender trust. Nor did it help when, just over a week after the Sixers made their public announcement, news broke that the team would also be purchasing the Greyhound bus station on Filbert Street one block north of the mall. By Chin’s definition of boundaries, this meant the arena crossed the threshold into Chinatown. Adelman says public renderings always showed the arena extending into the bus terminal; he simply hadn’t highlighted it. But for community groups wary of encroachment, this validated their concerns. Adelman admits the bus-station situation was a “foot fault” but chafes at the suggestion of impure motives. “That is a big stretch to say I’m displacing a Chinatown business and resident by buying the bus station,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the bus station? It’s a piece of shit. It literally smells like urine as you walk by the street.” He contends that ultimately, the arena is “not a Chinatown project.”
Whatever your definition, Chinatown has a long, fraught history of intrusive developments. In the 1970s, PennDOT used eminent domain to seize more than 300 properties, many in Chinatown, to build the Vine Street Expressway, which cut the neighborhood in half. In 1993, the city built the Convention Center on the western border, displacing residents. Other projects — the original Gallery, the Center City commuter tunnel linking Suburban Station and Market East — changed the area. Each time, Chinatown residents were told how the projects would benefit them. More often than not, they didn’t; such construction was rarely for their benefit. For every completed project, there’s a story of one that Chinatown mobilized against: a prison, a casino, a Phillies stadium.
Then there’s the case of Washington, D.C., with all its echoes. In 1994, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin announced his plans to build a new arena for his team in D.C.’s Chinatown. The Washington Post wrote that “some people voiced concerns about street access to the Chinatown location and the availability of parking,” but that the dominant emotion was “genuine euphoria” and that “business leaders hailed the proposed complex as a catalyst for the revitalization of a beleaguered city.” Pollin was quoted as saying, “I have faith in the future of this city, and I am prepared to take the risk and get this done.” (He promised the arena would be privately financed; it ended up costing the city $50 million.)
The district’s Chinatown was already in decline, in part due to the construction of a convention center in the neighborhood, and the arena did little to stem the tide. Three thousand Asian people once lived in D.C.’s Chinatown; these days, fewer than 500 do. Many of the surviving businesses are national chains that have replaced Chinese ones; their attempts at cultural awareness ring hollow. “It’s just ‘Chipotle’ written in Chinese,” says Jenny Zhang, an organizer for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance. A group of D.C. Chinatown residents published a recent op-ed in the Inquirer warning that “it isn’t a lack of tourism that kills Chinatown economies; it’s when Asian people stop coming because there is no parking, or the businesses they rely on shut down.” The op-ed warned: “Don’t make the same mistake.”
But the D.C. Chinatown case “isn’t 100 percent comparable,” says Dan Tsao, a business owner in Philly’s Chinatown and community leader who also publishes newspapers in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. Adelman has been trying to hammer home the same point. For one thing, Pollin’s project created an arena where there was previously nothing of the sort. Adelman argues he’s merely switching one commercial use for another, from mall to arena. Far from hurting businesses, as D.C.’s arena did, Adelman says he’ll add customers. He finds other parallels equally unconvincing. “The Phillies stadium 20 years ago would have been in the middle of Chinatown, displacing properties and businesses,” he says. “And I think the rallying cry that this is the same thing is inaccurate, not fair and not reality.”
Adelman believes he can assuage many of the community’s concerns. “Right now, there’s a public-safety issue going on in the city in general, but in that area in particular,” he says. “What we do here will help solve a lot of public safety by having people on the street. And two, we can enhance lighting and cameras. And then three, we have a real focus on making the community better, and we’ll invest in affordable housing.” The Sixers have partnered with Mosaic Development Partners, a Black-owned development firm with a track record of building mixed-income projects that don’t kick out longtime residents. Adelman, meanwhile, is attempting to convene a “community benefits steering committee” — a group of leaders representing the various constituencies in Chinatown that the Sixers will negotiate with in hopes of reaching an agreement. (Similar community benefits agreements were hashed out when the Phillies and Eagles built new stadiums in South Philly in the early 2000s and when Rivers Casino was erected in Northern Liberties; they typically involve the developers paying an annual sum — $1 million, in the case of the South Philly stadium district — to fund projects at the community’s discretion.)
But how much stock to put in promises? Everyone from Adelman to Councilmember Squilla says a community benefits agreement must be reached for the arena to be built. (There’s a separate question of whether a representative sample of the community is even possible; Asian Americans United has already said it won’t participate in negotiations and is circulating a petition against the arena that it says has over 7,000 signatures.) Because a project of this size will likely require zoning legislation, which will need to be introduced by Squilla, Chinatown has considerable leverage. But for now, uncertainty reigns. Zhang contends that an arena will simply re-create the “dead-zone feel” of the Convention Center. “When nothing is happening, no one is there, and anyone who has walked past the Convention Center at night knows it doesn’t feel safe,” she says. Chin likewise remains unconvinced. “I still have the same questions I did many weeks ago, when I was first introduced to the project,” he says. A community benefits agreement only fulfills its promise if the original community remains in place to reap those benefits.
And if there is no agreement? Adelman has mostly focused on what he can offer to Chinatown. In one conversation, he took the opposite tack: “What happens if we don’t build the arena? What’s the path for that mall, when you think about the fact that it’s in decline? What if it heads to a bankruptcy and it sits empty?”
He declines to say whether his deal with the mall owner has a contingency clause in the event the arena doesn’t move forward, but he mentions that the current zoning on Market Street allows any developer to build residential towers by right, no special permission required. “What if someone knocks it down and by right can build three Comcast towers?” Adelman asks. He says there’s a “naivete in the community” about the public-safety problems along Market Street: “No one wants to talk about what could happen here vs. the economic input this has.” The Sixers, he says, want to invest in public safety and affordable housing. “What other impetus would there be to solve those problems and anchor and bolster the community? I can’t think of one.”
When Adelman was 11, he challenged a family friend to a game of basketball. The friend was Alan Horwitz, who happened to run a small real estate empire in West Philadelphia by the name of Campus Apartments. The two made a wager on the game. “Most people let the 11-year-old win,” Adelman says. “He didn’t.”
This would prove significant: It was Adelman’s entrée into real estate. As the story he often tells goes, he lost his basketball and baseball glove and began working at Campus Apartments to earn them back. He got hooked. Real estate, he says, was like “a fascination and an addiction merged together.” He officially became a landlord for the first time at 13, when he had $2,000 in bar mitzvah money to spend and sank it into one of Horwitz’s apartment buildings. Adelman, who grew up on the Main Line — his father was a psychologist; his mother stayed home — continued to work at Campus during the summers. He gave tours to prospective tenants, painted, did other odd jobs. One year, he had an epiphany: He’d messed up and hit a plumbing line, and now excrement was spewing everywhere. “I remember thinking to myself, I don’t want to be the guy standing in shit when I’m older,” he says. Fortunately, he was family friends with the CEO and had an in. After four years away for college at Ohio State, he returned to Philly in 1994 and started working at Campus Apartments immediately.
Adelman had visions of being more than a local landlord. In 2000, he struck a deal with Penn to manage all of its off-campus housing, thinking if he could do it for Penn, he could do it for anyone. Horwitz, slightly confused as to why his protégé was so keen on rocking the boat, was content to step back. Adelman became CEO of the company before he turned 30.
“He’s kinetic energy personified,” says Campus Apartments chief investment officer Dan Bernstein, who’s worked with Adelman for 25 years. When Adelman first wanted to expand the company, he considered taking it public but ultimately decided to take on private investment. He went on a pitching bonanza and convinced the public investment fund of Singapore to give him $300 million, which prompted new projects nationwide. “I’d never raised a dollar before,” Adelman says. The company now owns more than $2 billion in real estate.
When Adelman took over Campus Apartments, the neighborhood around Penn was in crisis. Crime was high; in the span of two years, a grad student had been murdered, an undergrad had been shot, and a research associate had been stabbed to death — all in robberies. “West Philly was going to hell in a handbasket,” says Drexel president John Fry, a Penn executive at the time. Fry decided to create a business improvement district to fund amenities like lighting and foot patrols. He went around to various landlords asking for support and couldn’t get a meeting, with one exception: David Adelman. Fry made his pitch. Adelman said, “Well, how much do you need?” and committed $50,000 on the spot. Twenty-five years later, Adelman still serves on the University City District board.
In conversations about the arena, Adelman cites the University City District as a raging success. “I watched the effect firsthand of what a coordinated effort around public safety and cleanliness does,” he says. “I can help deliver that to Chinatown and Washington West right now, and it won’t cost the city anything.” But his tenure as Campus Apartments CEO coincided with significant gentrification in West Philly. The Spruce Hill neighborhood was 65 percent Black in 2000; that fell to 22 percent, per 2020 census data. Median home prices have risen from under $200,000 in 2000 to nearly $600,000. “I think everyone, whether we’re talking about David or we’re talking about Penn or the other universities, we have to admit that there should have been much more of an intentional focus on anti-displacement strategies, on equity, on making sure Black and brown working-class folks can live and access all benefits,” says City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents much of West Philly. “I hope that folks who have seen, including David, what’s going on in West Philly come at development with a different perspective now.”
Adelman says he supports affordable housing requirements for new construction projects, but if there were missteps in West Philly, he doesn’t see them committed by Campus Apartments, the University City District, or Penn, which offered low-interest mortgages to staff to encourage them to buy homes there. “I actually think it was the opposite effect,” he says, “where an organized effort by an institution providing capital, infrastructure and services stabilized the area.” He steers the conversation back to the arena. “Look what’s happening right now at 10th and Market, where you have shootings all the time, and random acts of violence in the mall.” (There was one gunshot fired in the mall in September — no one was hit — and according to police, there has been one shooting victim in the two-block radius surrounding the proposed arena so far this year.) Adelman goes on, “I see a similar problem that needs to be solved.”
Adelman rides up the escalator from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal subway stop, and the Barclays Center comes into view: large, brown, shaped like a futuristic toilet seat. “The energy is amazing,” he says, stepping onto the plaza in front of the arena. As part of his research, he’s been touring other arenas across the country; today, he and a few Sixers employees are checking out the Nets’ facilities while catching their first pre-season game of the year, which happens to be against the Sixers.
Across the street from the arena is a strip of retail. A Barclays Center employee giving the tour explains that these used to be mom-and-pop shops; now, they’re a Chick Fil-A, a Snipes, and a facade with an ad reading BROOKLYN FLAGSHIP REDEVELOP — COMING 2020. Adelman, marching through spitting rain, looks over and says quietly, “This could be better.”
Inside the arena, Adelman strides through the main concourse, which maintains Brooklyn’s chic color scheme of black and gray and dim lighting. Occasionally, the concessions stands stop, and you catch a glimpse of the court; it’s like staring into an amphitheater. There’s a pop-up zone where local businesses can set up on a rotating basis — maybe something like that could exist in Philly for Chinatown restaurants, Adelman muses. He admires a Grab and Go store where you tap your credit card and the system automatically knows what to charge you — no checkout required.
The tour moves on to the luxurious suites at the arena: an outpost of the 40/40 Club, which is owned by Jay-Z, with plenty of gold trim and bird’s-eye views of the court. There’s the Qatar Club, with windows looking out on the players’ tunnel. And, most swankily, there’s the Crown Club, a space so opulent, it’s as if you’ve teleported through the looking glass into a five-star restaurant: plush banquettes, chandeliers, gold wallpaper depicting a scene of flowers and birds. There’s even a dedicated candy “pantry” where fans can grab anything they want.
At dinner at the Crown Club, a server informs us that Nets owner and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai has graciously selected wine for our evening: a 2018 Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru ($395 a bottle) and a 2017 Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru ($325 a bottle). A feast from the Italian restaurant Carbone ensues: spicy rigatoni, veal parmesan, radicchio salad, shrimp scampi with fennel. You’d be forgiven for forgetting there’s a basketball game to come. “How do we even reciprocate to the Nets when they come to Philly?” Adelman asks the other Sixer employees at one point, somewhere between sheepish and joking. “Give them hot dogs?” (Adelman, while appreciative of the Barclays Center largesse, says this level of bougie-ness would never work in the Philly market. “I have a different vision,” he says.)
After dinner, Adelman makes his way to his seat. He typically posts a picture for his 40,000 Instagram followers before every Sixers game he attends, but this time, he’s in the ninth row, which for him practically amounts to Siberia. “If I post from here, people might think the recession has already started,” he jokes. (He ends up posting a zoomed-in shot of the Jumbotron.) After two quarters — a chunk of it spent on his phone, reviewing a work presentation — bad weather is coming, and Adelman is due back in Philly the next morning; he works out at 6 a.m. sharp daily and has a boxing session with a personal trainer scheduled. He rushes to a black car waiting at the loading dock; the car ascends the elevator to the street level, then deposits him at a pier on Wall Street. He marches to a helipad and flies off to Philly — takeoff to touchdown in just 30 minutes.
A few days later, I take a tour of the Wells Fargo Center at Adelman’s suggestion, with a group of Sixers PR officials. Everyone is perfectly kind and respectful to the Comcast landlords, but the subtext is clear: You’ve seen the Barclays; now look at the shithole we’re in.
The tour begins with the players’ locker room. Modern locker rooms these days have LED screens and chargers for players; here, there are none. The Sixers have one TV in the entire space. Down a linoleum-floored hallway that looks like the basement of a high school, we enter the weight room. The Sixers share this area with the Flyers, but it’s not big enough to fit both teams’ equipment, so someone has to wheel the Flyers’ stationary bikes out of the room before games. The trainer’s room, where players take ice baths, looks like a morgue. Until recently, when the team converted some office space, there was no place for Sixers to eat pre-game. There’s no place for chefs to cook pre-game meals for visiting teams; I saw them lined up in a hallway, stirring fried rice in a giant wok.
This has its competitive disadvantages, if you consider that each time an opposing player enters your arena, it’s a chance to show off (or in this case, not show off) your state-of-the-art facilities — subliminal free-agency recruitment. The Sixers are paying out of their own pocket for a $9 million renovation to expand and relocate the team’s locker room, but the building is the building, and there’s only so much you can do. “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” says a Sixers employee. Separately, Comcast is overseeing a $360 million renovation, which has included updates to things like plumbing and HVAC as well as to public-facing portions of the arena. (A back-of-the-house revamp, including the remaining locker rooms, is also planned.) There are now restaurants from Stephen Starr, Jose Garces and Marc Vetri inside the arena, but they’re all on the club level, way up where the corporate suites used to be back when the arena was first built. These days, basketball diehards want to be close to the action.
After the tour, I catch another Sixers pre-season game with Adelman, this one against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Adelman runs into Cavs forward Kevin Love pre-game and hugs him. Whether through proximity to people like Michael Rubin, who’s an A-list networker and friends with people like Drake and James Harden, or just by sheer proximity to the court, over the years Adelman has, for a real estate guy, attained an unusual level of closeness to celebrity. In fairness, he isn’t just a real estate guy anymore. In 2007, he co-founded the investment firm FS Investments alongside fellow Philadelphian Michael Forman. (FS now constitutes the single largest portion of his net worth, which Business Insider recently estimated at $1.6 billion.) And for the past 15 years, Adelman has had his own venture capital fund, Darco Capital, investing in a range of companies from highly sustainable and buzzy (the world’s first carbon-neutral milk) to not so sustainable but still buzzy (private-jet service Wheels Up). He even has his own line of spirits: a vodka distilled in Idaho and a whiskey distilled in Houston.
These days, many athletes seek out business guys for advice. Adelman has brought LeBron James, Tobias Harris and Russell Wilson into some of his investments — part of the appeal behind friendship with someone like him. “I think one of the big problems with a lot of rich people is they’re painfully boring,” Rubin says. “David’s not like that. David’s fun, he’s young, he’s vibrant, he’s got a good personality.” Adelman has been to Rubin’s tabloid-bonanza “white party” in the Hamptons during the summer alongside the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Drake and Kendall Jenner. Adelman has also made rounds in the film world; his wife, Hallee, is a documentary-film producer, and the duo have attended film festivals like Sundance. “She’s the creative type; I’m just the dumb capitalist,” Adelman jokes.
Those closest to Adelman rave about his generosity. He’s surprised friends with sudden-notice private-jet trips to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia and a Genesis concert in London. At the Sixers game, I saw him order a chicken cheesesteak and a cheeseburger and tip the server $100. (Adelman is a health nut and generally eschews bread; he ate the cheesesteak filling off the roll with a fork.) On the court, he ordered a soft pretzel — another $100 tip. Though he’s grown richer and more famous, his personality hasn’t changed, according to John Fry: “There’s none of that bullshit, that ego. There’s no brashness. I mean, David knows what he’s accomplished; he’s gonna need a healthy ego. But it’s a healthy ego. He’s not the guy who swaggers into the room and tells you how great he is. I’ve never seen that. And honestly, I’ve seen that from a lot of people who have accomplished a quarter of what David has accomplished.”
As Adelman watches the Sixers go through pre-season motions against the Cavs, he explains how his new arena will be different. “We designed it from the sight lines in vs. from the court out,” he says. That means seats will be sloped at the ideal angle for basketball-viewing, unlike at the Wells Fargo Center, which was designed for hockey. (The new arena will accommodate hockey, too, just in case the Flyers and Comcast ever want to cut bait; Comcast has been offered an ownership stake.) The building, which has a quasi-pyramid shape with grass and solar panels on the roof, will feature retail and restaurants facing the street that will open to the public on non-game nights. (The Sixers play just 41 regular-season home games each year, although the arena could also host concerts and other events.) A stretch of Filbert Street will be lined with food vendors and convert to a covered pedestrian market on off-days. “I feel like people in Philly don’t think they should have nice things,” Adelman says. “We deserve nice things. We’re going to have a great place.” He laments the Philly trait of “just getting by with the status quo.” This applies as much to what the arena looks like as to where it is. Despite plenty of fretting over where fans — especially suburban ones — will park downtown, Adelman says that 20 percent of Sixers fans already take SEPTA to games and that half come from Center City. (So far this season, transit ridership has been closer to seven percent, according to SEPTA figures.) Per the team’s surveys, an estimated 50 percent would take transit or walk to the new arena, and just 3,150 parking spots — less than half the current number — would be required. “I know that I’m kind of going against 50 years of muscle memory of people going into South Philadelphia,” Adelman says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
Adelman frames the arena in symbolic, practically existential terms. “We’re the poorest big city, education, gun violence,” he says, rattling off woes. “It makes people always count Philly out. We need this. We need to be a beacon of hope. People need to know we’re not giving up.” Adelman will be investing his own money here — $300 million to $400 million, split between himself, Harris and Blitzer — and says his motivations are more civic than financial. (A quick word about those finances: While the Sixers initially pledged the arena would be privately funded, Adelman has since opened up the door to taking state or federal dollars; the only red line, he says, is taking city funds.) “This is going to be one of the biggest personal checks I ever write for a single investment anywhere, and I’m doing it in Philadelphia,” he says. “That’s how committed I am to this. There’s a lot of money in the world. That’s a lot of money for David Adelman, okay?”
It’s undeniably shrewd to have a Philadelphian leading the arena development this time around. Adelman’s varied business and civic commitments — he also chairs the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — have helped him cultivate connections to many of the city’s most influential figures. Ryan Boyer, head of the city’s building trades, calls him “a genius, an innovator.” Mayor Jim Kenney declined an interview request but said in a statement that “it was exciting to hear the proposal for Fashion District Philadelphia as we believe it has the potential to be an ideal site for a world-class sports and entertainment arena.” Adelman says the Mayor was “ecstatic” about the proposal.
Given the project’s timeline, Adelman’s relationship with the next mayor figures to be even more important. “They’ve done a good job meeting with all the potential serious mayoral candidates, being agnostic on who they support, and making sure they support the project,” Boyer says of Adelman and the Sixers. Whether Adelman is himself agnostic isn’t clear. He can’t donate directly to city candidates due to his involvement with FS Investments and restrictions affecting asset managers, but he attended a dinner hosted by prospective candidate Jeff Brown, the supermarket owner who’s the darling of the city’s business class. Adelman downplays his attendance, saying he’s “spent time with lots of the folks that are considering a run just because I care about the city.” Despite his friendliness with city Democrats, he’s lived in Haverford for the past 16 years and is a registered Republican, having made federal donations to everyone from Marco Rubio and Brian Fitzpatrick to Bob Casey and Susan Wild. “Honestly, I wish I could be a registered centrist,” he says.
Maybe the biggest advantage the Sixers have in Adelman is that very few people seem to dislike him — no small feat considering the two words that first come to mind when describing him are “billionaire” and “developer.” Progressive Councilmember Gauthier calls him a “good friend,” though they agree on virtually nothing and many of her bills on Council, including a zoning law that mandates affordable housing units in all new large construction projects, directly impact Campus Apartments. “I think the fact that we have a relationship allows us to talk through some very difficult issues and to land on at least some semblance of common ground,” she says. “We’re not coming to the table as enemies; we’re coming to the table as friends who just often see the world differently.” Ali Perelman, who runs Philadelphia 3.0, the nonprofit that spends on City Council races — Adelman helps fund its expenditures that aren’t on political campaigns — describes him as a “very menschy dude. … In Philly, it’s tough to find people that are universally well-liked. We have so many camps and factions and grudges and all that BS. That alone is kind of a distinguishing characteristic of this person.”
Perhaps that’s why Adelman feels he may yet win over some of his biggest skeptics — even Helen Gym. “If we get the community benefits agreement right and she sees I’m not full of shit, who knows?” he says. “I think everything is on the table.” Gym declined to comment.
By early November, everything was still on the table. Negotiations with Chinatown were proceeding in fits and starts, but the contours of the discussions were emerging. Adelman and the Sixers have been to Chinatown between 20 and 25 times, according to Tsao, the business owner and publisher, to talk and meet with various groups. He and other business owners insisted that if the team was going to follow through with its covered-market plan for Filbert Street, Chinatown restaurant owners should be first in line to lease any space for Asian concepts. The Sixers agreed. Tsao also raised the concern that existing business owners could be forced to compete against national brands for their leases; he says the Sixers agreed to consider creating a fund for business owners to offset potential rent increases. Tsao has found Adelman to be a willing negotiator. “Even though David Adelman is a billionaire, he hasn’t put off any attitude,” he says. By his estimate, 95 percent of community leaders in Chinatown are still “not taking any position” on the proposal and waiting to learn more.
The Sixers, meanwhile, have been proactive. One of Tsao’s media outlets published an article about Asian Americans United’s strong opposition to the arena project. The piece was written in Chinese and only accessible via WeChat, the social media app used by Chinese people worldwide. The next day, someone from the Sixers reached out to Tsao, asking to provide a response to the critiques in the story.
Slowly, the community benefits steering committee has been coming into focus. According to Tsao, there will be between 13 and 15 members: four umbrella community groups, including the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation; three business owners, including himself; three Chinatown residents; and three religious organizations. AAU has been invited to join; it declined. “We’re still at phase one,” Tsao says. Phase two should involve more specifics: raw numbers, economic impact studies. “Then I think the whole negotiation is going to be escalated to a different level,” he says. Eventually the Sixers will expand the discussion to include neighborhoods and businesses outside Chinatown as well. Adelman tells me the Sixers will soon be proposing a $50 million payment as the centerpiece of its community benefits agreement. The money — a mix of cash up front and funds to be paid out over 30 years — would mostly go to projects in Chinatown. But what projects? And is $50 million enough?
A few weeks earlier, Adelman stood at the intersection of 10th and Filbert, his tour of the mall and the would-be arena concluded. This stretch of road might eventually be his imagined pedestrian marketplace. The underperforming stores on the south side of Market Street might one day be replaced with housing and retail that’s actually open. But for now, the first community benefits steering committee meeting, Adelman’s chance to pitch the team’s $50 million proposal, loomed. Something would happen at the meeting — however it ended up going — and knowing how much opposition he is or isn’t up against would constitute progress. “I might get the shit kicked out of me!” Adelman said. He smiled, then turned and walked up 10th Street into the distance, passing beneath an overpass that read, for now, in giant letters, FASHION DISTRICT.
Published as “Full Court Press” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Since this article appeared in print, Helen Gym resigned from City Council. We have updated her title in this version and have included a response from her about the first conversation she had with Adelman about the arena. This article has also been updated to reflect the facility upgrades currently underway at Wells Fargo Center.