The 76ers are exploring the possibility of building a new basketball arena at Penn’s Landing, and the team is lobbying local officials to get behind a plan to help finance construction with taxpayer support, The Inquirer has learned.
The proposal, sure to spark intense debate, is the latest in a long history of disputes over how to revitalize the Delaware River waterfront and where to put sports complexes in Philadelphia. The team wants to move out of the Wells Fargo Center, which it shares with the Flyers and which is owned by Comcast Spectacor, by the 2031 season, according to a planning document viewed by The Inquirer. The document is a draft of talking points for the Sixers’ lobbying efforts.
The team is proposing to finance the project using the state Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) program, which allows development bonds to be issued based on future tax revenues from businesses within a certain area. It was used to fund the construction of an arena in Allentown.
The document says that no direct appropriation of taxpayer money would be needed, and that the NIZ would be funded through future city and state tax revenue. It suggests that Sixers representatives have already discussed the proposal with leaders of local and state transit agencies. And it touts a promise of $1 billion in economic benefits for communities of color through construction and operations.
“The 76ers have long enjoyed a strong relationship with Comcast Spectacor, but the organization is exploring all options for when its lease ends at Wells Fargo Center in 2031, including a potential arena development at Penn’s Landing,” a Sixers spokesperson said Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Comcast Spectacor declined to comment.
The proposal comes as the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. continues a years-long effort to reshape Penn’s Landing, and as the city moves forward with a separate project to “cap” I-95 between Chestnut and Walnut Streets by building a park over the highway that has long cut off Philadelphia from its waterfront.
The DRWC in October put out a call for developers to propose residential buildings with ground-floor shops and restaurants on two sites near the northern and southern tips of Penn’s Landing’s central strip between Market and South Streets. But the Sixers are now courting lawmakers to support their proposal instead.
State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D., Phila.), who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, has invited other elected officials to a meeting Friday with Steve Crawford, a lobbyist hired by the Sixers. Kinsey’s office did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
The political calculus for Mayor Jim Kenney could be complicated, with his supporters potentially on opposite sides of the issue. Progressive activists are likely to oppose using taxpayer resources to help a team owned by a pair of billionaire investors, Josh Harris and David Blitzer. But a leader of the building trades unions quickly signaled support for a project that could produce jobs for members.
Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Kenney, said the mayor “is supportive of DRWC’s process and looks forward to working with the selected respondent.”
Ryan Boyer, president of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said he is a “huge fan” of the proposal.
“I think it’s a game-changer for Philadelphia,” Boyer said. “I think for once we need to think big.
“We shouldn’t walk away just because the city would have to put some money in,” he added, noting that a codeveloper in the proposal is the minority-owned firm Mosaic. “We’re looking at thousands of construction jobs.”
But the proposal encountered immediate resistance among City Council progressives. Councilmember Helen Gym, who leads an increasingly influential liberal wing in the chamber, said the city has far too many other issues to deal with amid the coronavirus pandemic — such as unemployment, a looming eviction crisis, and reopening schools.
”I think a bunch of billionaire investors looking for a tax handout could take a break from lobbying us and focus on the actual priorities of this city,” she said. “A publicly funded sports stadium ranks about nowhere on that list.”
Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes Penn’s Landing, said “all proposals should be vetted, given a fair chance, and have the community able to weigh in on them to see what’s best for the city and the community as a whole. There’s going to be people with concerns and people elated on both sides.”
From an urban planning perspective, the arena would face numerous challenges. The current waterfront master plan is the product of a lengthy citizen-led effort, one that rejected previous attempts to turn Penn’s Landing into an entertainment district. It envisions the waterfront growing organically into a residential neighborhood that includes large amounts of park space.
In many ways, the Sixers’ proposal harks back to the 1990s, when big public attractions and megaprojects were seen as a solution to waterfront development. The site of the proposed arena is also directly south of the Pier 3 Condominiums. Residents there would almost certainly object to having a busy arena next door.
For the last decade, the DRWC has been focused on making Columbus Boulevard more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. But the Sixers would likely want to upgrade automobile access and build additional parking. That could compromise efforts to pedestrianize the area.
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.), whose district stops just north of the site, said on Twitter that “it would be an absurd use of precious waterfront land and is in no way consistent with the larger vision of giving citizens greater access to the riverfront.”
It’s not impossible to accommodate a basketball arena in an urban space. They tend to be smaller than baseball and football stadiums. Newark, N.J., Oklahoma City, and Columbus, Ohio, have built arenas in their downtowns. But those arenas are located closer to the traditional business district.
The push for a new arena comes six years after the New Jersey Economic Development Authority awarded the Sixers $82 million in corporate tax breaks to build a 120,000-square-foot practice facility in Camden. The team also won a property tax abatement. Earlier this year, the EDA sought to recoup $400,000 in tax credits, saying the team’s award had been improperly calculated.
Democratic State Rep. Mary Isaacson, who represents the area, said she’s keeping an open mind until all proposals are made public. She expressed hope that whatever project moves forward will finally reconnect the waterfront with Center City.
”We want to make sure it is all very complimentary and tie in our city to the waterfront, finally,” Isaacson said.
Harris Steinberg, who led a committee 12 years ago that helped envision what is now the waterfront’s master plan, said the Sixers’ proposal could work “if it actually contributed to the urban fabric.” But Steinberg, now executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, said he was skeptical the arena would leave public space around it to create an accessible, public waterfront.
The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., is about 15 acres, he noted. The site the Sixers are seeking has less than 8 acres available for development. If the arena took up the entire space, he said, “they need to go back to the drawing board. This is public space and it’s designed that way in perpetuity.”
-Staff writer Keith Pompey contributed to this article.