It won’t be long before the 76ers know if their proposal to build a new basketball arena at Penn’s Landing will get a green light.
The team’s plan, first reported Wednesday by The Inquirer, came into clearer focus Thursday, as did the timeline for its initial approval. The Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which solicited proposals last year to develop two waterfront parcels, said Thursday that it would choose from the ones it received within the next month, “so that development plans could begin to coordinate with the new park at Penn’s Landing.” That park is scheduled to break ground next year.
The Sixers’ project would face additional hurdles if it’s selected, including city and state legislative action to secure tax breaks. And a planning document viewed by The Inquirer says construction wouldn’t begin until 2028.
It remains unclear what other proposals are being considered. The Sixers arena itself would be built between Chestnut and Market Streets. But City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the area, said the plan encompasses development of more than just that site and another between Lombard and Spruce Streets, for which DRWC also sought proposals. A source familiar with the plan described it as heavily reliant on public transit and including residential, retail, cultural, and entertainment uses.
The Sixers are proposing to build it using something similar to the 2009 Neighborhood Improvement Zone that funded an Allentown arena. Public agencies and private developers could borrow cash to finance the arena and other commercial projects within the development site. Local and state taxes generated within that area thanks to the new construction would be used to pay back the debt — effectively borrowing against future tax revenue. Creating a zone in Philadelphia may require new state legislation in Harrisburg.
The team wants to move out of the Wells Fargo Center, which is owned by Comcast Spectacor, by 2031.
Reactions to the plan among elected officials and other stakeholders were split Thursday. The Sixers are pledging $1 billion in economic benefits for communities of color through construction and operations, according to the planning document. That won praise from U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat.
“What I liked about it is, Philadelphia has to think big and think bold,” said Evans, whose district includes Penn’s Landing. “We need economic opportunity.”
The plan also calls for a new African American Museum at Penn’s Landing, to replace its current location at Seventh and Arch Streets. “We have been in conversations with the 76ers and are excited about the potential for a new museum location at the waterfront,” a museum spokesperson said.
But progressive leaders are likely to oppose any tax subsidies, especially as the city’s finances have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. And environmental activists said the proposal runs counter to longtime waterfront development goals, which call for reconnecting the city’s street grid with the river — a connection severed when I-95 was built. A new arena would block that access, said David Masur, executive director of the nonprofit PennEnvironment.
“I think it’s a horrible and shortsighted idea,” Masur said.
“The public has said we want to move toward a vision of the city where we have access to this great natural resource,” he added. “In a city where there is already too much wall-to-wall concrete and development, people want more places to enjoy increased access to the riverfront.”
Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, called the proposal “truly a waste of that precious natural resource [that] will once again impede the ability of people to reconnect with their river.”
The Sixers declined to comment Thursday.
There were also signs Thursday that key political players may be split on the project. Squilla said he’s open to the idea and is worried Mayor Jim Kenney will oppose it. Kenney has considerable political sway over the DRWC and has appointees on its board.
Squilla said he emailed Kenney about a month ago, after meeting with the Sixers and three other groups that submitted proposals. He declined to describe the other proposals, but said the Sixers’ was “the biggest” and “by far the largest investment.”
The DRWC, the nonprofit that owns the land, declined to comment on any proposals.
“I heard the mayor was not interested in having that be one they looked at,” Squilla said of the Sixers’ pitch. “That sort of worried me.
“There is not a project that shouldn’t be looked at because it is too hard,” he added. “Don’t just exclude things because they might be too large or at the initial request it looks like a heavy lift.”
Kenney said Thursday that he had not been involved in DRWC’s selection process.
“I’ve taken great pains and great pride in staying outside of these kinds of considerations without weighing in myself or putting a thumb on the scale for any particular developer,” he said.
Kenney is likely to face pressure from progressives to oppose taxpayer support for a sports franchise owned by billionaire investors, Josh Harris and David Blitzer. But the building trades unions, another key part of his political coalition, quickly voiced support Wednesday.
If development at Penn’s Landing requires City Council legislation, Squilla would likely have final say over its approval. Council’s longtime practice of councilmember prerogative grants the 10 members who represent districts essentially unchecked power over land use issues in their respective districts.
It’s not clear, however, that the project would face zoning hurdles. Squilla sponsored a bill that passed unanimously last year to change the zoning in the Penn’s Landing area. DRWC touted the bill in its solicitation for developers as a move that would “ensure that development patterns on the waterfront work to create a series of vital public spaces and a walkable, vibrant, mixed-use waterfront.”
Other lawmakers are encouraging Kenney to consider the proposal.
“It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would fail to consider a potential plan that could possibly create good union jobs for people who have been left out of the economic equation,” Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker said.
Evans said the backers of three other proposals did not ask to meet with him. He also said he spoke with Kenney’s chief of staff — not to lobby for the selection of the Sixers’ project, but to encourage the administration to consider it.
Asked about the Sixers’ emphasis on using minority contractors, Evans pointed to a report issued this month by the Center City District, which compared Philadelphia with four other East Coast cities. It found that the city has both the lowest number of Black-owned firms in proportion to Black residents and the lowest number of businesses in relation to overall population.
The Sixers say their investment would include workforce and business support programs to help women and people of color get construction jobs or open businesses in the redeveloped area, according to the planning document.
Council’s calls for investments in Black communities have intensified in the wake of civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
Evans was a key player in the state legislature for the political wrangling that resulted in the construction and later expansion of the Convention Center in Center City.
“It transformed the city,” Evans said of that project. “Penn’s Landing has the potential to also do that.”
A Sixers lobbyist is scheduled to brief state lawmakers — including Rep. Stephen Kinsely (D., Phila.), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus — and other officials Friday.
Staff writers Jacob Adelman, Marc Narducci, and Stephan Salisbury contributed to this article.