On 76ers Arena, We Shouldn’t Rush “the Process”

The recent controversy surrounding the multibillion-dollar proposal might be less contentious if we had a road map for how the decision will be made. For starters, a new mayor and a City Council chosen by voters should be involved.

A rendering of the proposed 76ers arena / Image courtesy of 76 Devcorp

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the proposed 76ers arena in Center City. There’s a deeply reported history of such venues negatively impacting diverse communities (side-eying the Nets’ Barclays Center).

But the truth is, in the poorest big city in America, when billionaires propose something grand, we consider it. That’s the context for the current debate over the $1.3 billion 76ers arena that the team’s owners have floated. However, the development poses a threat to nearby Chinatown, an area that has already found itself at the center of enough development and infrastructure pressure.  It doesn’t help that the team’s case for relocating is in part due to dissatisfaction with their current home, the Wells Fargo Center, the owners of which, to their credit, have been making investments to modernize the facility.

On top of that, there’s been no process for the public to consider the impact of the Sixers proposal. There seems to be, pardon the expression, a full-court press from the team to quickly garner support. So far, Chinatown residents and the Sixers have only met in one public community meeting after months of private discussions arranged by the latter group. That gathering was tense and the crowd was hostile.

For starters, communication between the Sixers arena backers and the Chinatown community has been shaky. The outreach from developers before the grand announcement last year was, Chinatown leaders say, limited. And though the Chinatown community has been more fully engaged since, the effort seems to be hamstrung by what some members feel is a too-little, too-late approach. And some feel that arena proponents crossed a line by involving prominent Black business and religious leaders. The move was later criticized by other local Black clergy members who felt it pitted one racial group against another.

What’s more, the arena proposal has become tangled up in mayoral politics. A recent bombshell report says that last fall, the Sixers may have dropped $250,000 in “dark money” on the PAC backing mayoral candidate Jeff Brown. For what it’s worth, Brown, who will no longer benefit from the aforementioned super PAC, has publicly supported the 76ers arena throughout his campaign.

What’s been lacking throughout this controversy is — say it with me — a process. Earlier this month, the city finally announced plans to initiate an independent impact study of the project.

“We recognize and appreciate that the 76ers proposal has generated significant attention across the city. While it’s an exciting opportunity, we must understand the impact it may have on the surrounding communities before any plans move forward,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “Given the size and scope of this proposed project, it is too early in the process to know the specific impacts of the proposed downtown arena. That is why over the coming months, several city and public agency partners, as well as third-party consultants, will complete various technical studies to ascertain the feasibility and impacts of an arena in the proposed location.”

An impact study is a good start, but what we really need is an actual road map. I also think that the full City Council should get involved. Historically, “councilmanic prerogative” has influenced how zoning and development decisions get made. Before the Sixers can move forward on such development, they must get their zoning ordinance approved by City Council. The developers have said they’d like to see this done by June. By custom, other Councilmembers defer to the representative for the district affected by a project — in this case, Mark Squilla. But Councilmanic prerogative isn’t an actual law; it’s one of those “unwritten rules” so common in both politics and sports.

There’s no guarantee City Council will just go with the flow on a project this high-profile and polarizing. I argue that there is no need to rush this decision. Not under the leadership of a mayor in the waning days of his term and a City Council that currently has several vacancies (and some members who aren’t running for reelection). This vote should take place next year, with a new mayor and a robust group of Councilmembers. I can certainly see why the Sixers would prefer to have this decision made now. After all, who the hell knows what a new mayor and a mess of new Councilmembers will decide?

It seems that City Council isn’t ready to decide either way. I’d love for them to host a public hearing that would allow the community at large to weigh in. Combine the public’s feedback and the upcoming impact report, then let that guide the decision-making in the next year. A mayor who won’t have to deal with the political consequences shouldn’t be making a decision so consequential. That’s the “process” we should all be trusting. Anything less transparent or more expedient denies us all the the opportunity to consider the true risks and rewards.