Philadelphia’s tight–knit Chinatown community has been threatened with large–scale development in their neighborhood for decades. Ranging from proposals to build a casino, prison, and baseball stadium, each project demonstrates the City's willingness to cast Chinatown residents aside to make way for profitable new construction. The community has opposed each of these invasive projects, preventing any of them from coming to fruition. Activist movements for the preservation of Chinatown are led by local organizations with legacies of resistance and community empowerment.
The latest danger to the area has come in the form of a new arena for the Philadelphia 76ers. Proposed to open for the 2031 NBA season, “76 Place” would be located at 10th and Market streets, among the hustle and bustle of Philly’s Center City, and just two blocks from Chinatown's emblematic Friendship Gate.
Wei Chen, Civic Engagement Director of Asian Americans United (AAU), a group working to empower Asian Americans in Philadelphia to exercise leadership and resist oppression, explains important context to consider in the debate over the impending arena. “There’s almost no Chinese or Asian owned businesses anymore,” Chen says, pointing to how the Asian population in Chinatown has already begun to decline. The arena would only further decimate the unique cultural stronghold that roughly 3,000 Philadelphians call home.
“They are making a decision about the future of our community…they think it’s easy to sell [us],” Chen comments on the developers’ failure to consider the impacts the stadium would have on Chinatown residents during the planning process. I asked Chen for his thoughts on an opinion piece published in the Inquirer titled “New Sixers arena will benefit all Philadelphians.” He laughed aloud at the headline. The article, written by David Gould, Chief Diversity and Impact officer for the 76ers, and Greg Reaves, Co–owner of the firm behind the proposal, Mosaic Development Partners, illuminates the Sixers’ reasoning and methodology behind 76 Place.
Gould and Reaves write that there have been “ongoing conversations with community leaders and stakeholders” to ensure that the development is equitable and respectful. Though AAU and other Chinatown organizations have engaged with Sixers representatives, Chen says “We’re not part of a conversation to negotiate how to sell our home. The only reason we’re meeting with them is because we want to respect everyone. We’re giving them a chance to talk about how they’ll tear down my community, my home.” Despite the discussions between both parties, Chinatown leaders have no intention of allowing the plan to move forward. Chen indicates how painful it is for community leaders to sit through these talks, forced to listen to the planned destruction of the area they’ve lived in for years.
The Sixers have publicly lauded that the footprint of 76 Place would not overtake any existing businesses or residences, and would instead repurpose a section of the existing Fashion District. Chen believes that this consideration is not enough to keep Chinatown safe. “There’s no guarantee. There’s no one holding them accountable,” he says. Community leaders are being forced to take developers at their word that they will preserve the culture and social structures of Chinatown.
Even outside the Asian American community, Chinatown is home to many local organizations fighting for social justice. Chen points to one organization serving Philadelphia’s disabled community, noting that increased traffic because of the arena would make navigating wheelchairs and wheelchair–accessible vehicles on the streets more difficult. The Sixers’ consideration of Chinatown falls short of taking these community–serving organizations into account.
Increased traffic in the area is one of the foremost concerns about the development. Chinatown is already one of the most congested areas in the city, with tight one–way streets and swaths of pedestrians. The new arena would accommodate 3,500 parking spaces, about 3,000 short of the average number of cars parked for a Sixers game. With inadequate parking built into the arena’s plan, Chinatown streets and parking lots will bear the brunt of this influx of visitors. This oversight is especially frustrating given the plethora of parking spaces at the current Wells Fargo Center. Opponents of the construction ask why developers are choosing to move the arena away from the functional and convenient sports complex in South Philadelphia.
Even as the Sixers take initial precautions in their plans, Chen worries that the organization will not take responsibility for its long–term impact on the neighborhood. “There's no one that can hold them accountable when a Chinatown tofu store becomes a Chipotle,” he says, pointing to the wider gentrification that could follow the arena’s construction. Again, community leaders must rely on the integrity and good intentions of developers, with no real safeguards in place to protect their homes. Representatives from AAU have met with members of city council to garner support against the arena.
The funding sources for 76 Place give the city limited power in overseeing the project. The city has no financial stake in the project, and therefore has no space to make demands about the construction and its impacts. In another opinion piece defending the arena, investor David Adelman revealed that while developers would accept public funding at the state or federal level, they would not accept funding from Philadelphia, intentionally excluding the interests of the city and thus Philadelphians.
The $1.3 billion construction is privately funded by three billionaires, all with ties to Penn. Josh Harris (W ’86) and David Blitzer (W ’91) have maintained a strong relationship with Penn throughout their successful investment careers. In 2019, Harris donated $10 million to launch the Joshua J. Harris Alternative Investments Program, a contribution that vastly expanded the resources and opportunities for Wharton students. Blitzer serves as a university trustee and on the Wharton School Board of Overseers. David Adelman is the only one of the investors who did not graduate from Penn, but he maintains a role in the university as CEO of Campus Apartments. Activist groups on campus have taken notice of Penn’s ties to 76 Place, and are urging administrators to take a stance against the construction.
The goal of Chinatown leaders and activists around the city is to prevent the construction of the arena. They have no interest in mitigating or remedying the harmful effects of the arena and attempting to retroactively regulate the construction process after it is already put in place. I asked Wei Chen how Penn students can support the cause against the arena. First, students can sign the petition in protest of the arena, as well as reach out to city council members. Chen also simply urges students to keep the topic in conversation, spreading the word about its harmful impacts and lack of consideration for the Chinatown community.