Last week’s decision to grant Penn’s Landing development rights to a rival bidder upended the 76ers $4 billion plan to build themselves a new basketball arena at the central Philadelphia waterfront site.
But it may have only marked the beginning of their search for a new home.
By competing to develop Penn’s Landing, the Sixers signaled their dissatisfaction with their current home venue, the Wells Fargo Center at South Philadelphia’s sports stadium complex, which the team leases from Comcast Spectacor and shares with the Flyers.
The region’s business and real estate communities are now carefully watching for the Sixers' next steps, handicapping potential development sites in the city and even across the Delaware River in Camden, where the team already has its practice facility.
“They just want to control their arena. They don’t want to be a tenant at this point,” said Michael Barmash, a broker with commercial real estate firm Colliers International in Philadelphia, who is not helping in the search for a new site. “There are options out there.”
The Sixers have said their desire to explore building themselves a new arena has nothing to do with their relationship with Comcast Spectacor.
Still, the team is said to be seeking more flexibility in scheduling their games, which they would have at an arena of their own. The Wells Fargo Center will also be 35 years old when the Sixers' lease there expires in 2031, at which point it may start showing its age.
But what the Sixers may want most of all is to escape the Wells Fargo Center’s remote, parking-lot encircled corner of South Philadelphia in favor of a bustling enclave of restaurants, hotels and other amenities for fans to enjoy, said Thomas Hazinski, who advises teams and cities on stadium projects as a managing director with Chicago-based consultancy HVS.
The most successful arena and stadium projects of recent years, such as the LA Live complex in downtown Los Angeles and Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, have combined sports venues with other commercial uses in already-dense urban areas, he said.
And teams that make their venues just one component of a larger development can earn revenue from the apartments, hotels and stores that are also part of the projects, an addition to giving fans a more engaging game-day experience, Hazinski said.
“It’s capturing the spending surrounding the stadium,” he said.
That sounds like what Sixers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer had in mind for Penn’s Landing: a 18,500-seat arena and 11 towers of dwelling units, hotel rooms, shops, restaurants and museums spread along the waterfront between Market Street and South Street.
Harris and Blitzer planned to seek state and local legislation granting them tax subsidies worth as much as $885 million to help pay for their proposal.
When waterfront officials voted last week to go, instead, with plans by the Durst Organization of New York for a mostly residential development at the site, they noted that their chosen plan would require no special subsidy.
That decision may not have come as a complete shock to the Sixers.
When developers propose big projects that require hefty political support, they usually have backup outcomes in mind, as well, said lawyer Robert D. Lane Jr., who in the late 1990s served on a mayoral task force that evaluated a proposal for a Phillies ballpark at Broad and Spring Garden Streets.
That project was never built. Instead, the Phillies got a new venue in South Philadelphia, the one now known as Citizens Bank Park.
“Whenever a proponent has a high-risk, low-odds, but high-reward venture, they often have a Plan B in mind,” Lane said.
There’s been some social-media speculation that the Sixers' Plan B could involve a move across the Delaware River to Camden, where a practice facility was built for the team in 2015 with about $80 million in state tax incentives.
There had, in fact, been a plan in the early 1990s for a Sixers arena complex that would have filled most of central Camden’s waterfront — an area now occupied by new office and apartment buildings — when the team was owned by weight-loss entrepreneur Harold Katz.
It was scuttled by then-Gov.-elect Christie Whitman, who balked at the potential cost of the 18,000 seat venue to taxpayers.
The Sixers said in response to questions about their arena plans — including a potential move to Camden — that they “are committed to the city of Philadelphia.”
“We intend to explore all options in Philadelphia for when our lease expires in 2031,” the team said.
There are multiple sites across the city that could accommodate a big arena project, said Barmash of Colliers.
One is the 2.7-acre assemblage of parking lots at Eighth and Market Streets owned by the Blue Bell-based Goldenberg Group, where a Walt Disney Co. attraction known as DisneyQuest had been planned in the late 1990s.
Among its biggest selling points, Barmash said, is the public transit access it would offer to fans from throughout the region.
It sits atop a transit concourse served by the Market-Frankford Line, the Broad Street Line’s Broad-Ridge Spur and PATCO, and is just a couple blocks away from Jefferson Station, where all of SEPTA’s Regional Rail trains stop.
“We have always viewed Eighth and Market as one of the most significant intersections in the city, and one deserving of a truly signature development,” said Seth Shapiro, Goldenberg’s chief operating officer. “We haven’t had any discussions with the Sixers team, but certainly a new arena would seem to provide the sort of landmark project the site deserves.”
Another contender could be the long-vacant, four-acre tract on the northeast corner of Broad Street and Washington Avenue, although an arena plan there would require its owner, developer Bart Blatstein, to pivot away from his current plan for a 1,111-unit apartment building at the site, Barmash said.
A message left for Blatstein through a spokesperson was not returned.
Commercial property consultant Bill Luff of CRE Visions LLC, meanwhile, said he could see developers Brandywine Realty Trust or Wexford Science & Technology making way for an arena and accompanying development on either of their big West Philadelphia project sites, Schuylkill Yards and uCity Square.
Another conceivable West Philadelphia site could be made available through Amtrak’s 30th Street Station District Plan, which envisions the redevelopment of what would be a 175-acre site — part of it on a platform that would be built over operating rail yards — around the station over 35 years, said Luff, who also is not helping in a Sixers search.
Wexford and Amtrak representatives said an arena was not part of their companies' current plans. A Brandywine spokesperson had no comment.
Other properties mentioned by brokers and others as able to accommodate an arena include sections of the 1,300-acre Philadelphia Energy Solutions site in South Philadelphia owned by Hilco Redevelopment Partners; part of the area around Amtrak’s North Philadelphia station owned by HFZ Capital Group; and the former Hahnemann University Hospital campus over nearly six acres at Broad Street along the Vine Street Expressway, which is owned by investor Joel Freedman and Harrison Street Real Estate.
Hilco is focusing on the development of the former PES refinery as a logistics hub, a spokesperson said. A representative of HFZ’s North Station District plan said his group has not held any discussions on the arena. A Freedman representative did not respond to an email.
Far more openly enthusiastic about the prospect of an arena deal is property investor Mark Nicoletti, who plans to pitch the Sixers on a 12-acre parcel he owns on the edge of the stadium district at Packer Avenue and South Darien Street.
About a year ago, Nicoletti’s Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. had already drawn up plans to develop the property as a complex of restaurants, offices, homes and apartments called Stadium Square that aimed to enliven the area.
Now he’s rejiggering those plans to include an arena among the other development.
“You’ve seen the development of these large sports-and-entertainment districts, not just in the U.S., it’s all over the world,” he said. “And yet, Philadelphia doesn’t have one: We have a sea of parking lots around our stadiums.”