Last week, The Inquirer broke the news that the Sixers want to move their home court from the Wells Fargo Center in deep South Philly to a new proposed arena along the Delaware River waterfront, near Penn’s Landing. Waterfront development has long been controversial, with each new proposed project resulting in hearty debates on issues ranging from architecture and urban planning to employment and community impact. To capture two sides of this latest debate, The Inquirer tapped Harris M. Steinberg, who led a public process to develop a civic vision for the waterfront, and Ryan N. Boyer, whose work as a labor leader informs his views on development.
No: New waterfront development needs more public input.
By Harris M. Steinberg
The history of Penn’s Landing is riddled with false promises.
Created for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia, Penn’s Landing stretches from the foot of Market Street to South Street along the Delaware River. Conceived as a celebratory public space and boat basin that could support some development, the landing quickly became the holy grail for politicians blinded by the siren song of economic booms that could come from one ungainly megaproject after another.
Remember the bloated late-1990s Simon Property Group scheme to build a 600,000-square-foot enclosed entertainment complex with above-ground parking smack on the riverfront that included the Please Touch Museum on top of the building with a tram stop to Camden above that to boot. Thankfully, it collapsed of its own weight.
Just when we thought that we had put these old tropes away, along comes the current version of this tired cliche with the Sixers proposal to build a new stadium on our front lawn.
What is wrong with this picture?
“Penn’s Landing is public land. It is not the sandbox of powerful politicians who can dangle tax breaks and building permits under the guise of privilege.”
Did we not engage in a landmark public planning process in 2006-07 to create a new vision for the Delaware waterfront that was based on citizen’s values of riverfront access, human-scaled and walkable development, and, most importantly, the extension of Philadelphia’s iconic street grid to the river?
That public process upended decades of the old Philadelphia mantra that “any development is good development.” The civic vision for the waterfront created by that process is now guiding the development of the waterfront.
We have come too far in the last two decades in reknitting our precious urban fabric. That urban fabric was destroyed by postwar planning policies that gave us soul-crushing urban wastelands such as Independence Mall, the Gallery, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, I-95, I-676, and others.
Stadiums are urban dead zones, too.
The Sixers play 41 games in Philadelphia from October through April. That leaves 324 days when the stadium is inactive. Furthermore, the current Wells Fargo Center where the Sixers play spills out over 20 acres within a sea of surface parking. The Inquirer reports that the current development parcel on Penn’s Landing is only 7.4 acres. Is this what we want shoehorned onto a tight site with limited parking and car access?
Perhaps what is most galling is the lack of public process. Penn’s Landing is public land. It is not the sandbox of powerful politicians who can dangle tax breaks and building permits under the guise of privilege.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. are the stewards for this valuable landscape, and they should know better. The current waterfront corporation was born in 2009 out of the ashes of the disgraced Penn’s Landing Corp., which had become a cozy backroom tool of the powerful and the connected.
Penn’s Landing and the public deserve much better.
The landmark 2007 Civic Vision for the Central Delaware rests on a series of bedrock principles that reflect the public’s values for the development of the waterfront. The principles include touchstones such as reconnecting the city to the river’s edge, honoring the river, designing with nature, and striking the right balance between development and public space. Most importantly, was the principle of protecting the public good.
With the proposed Sixers arena, city leaders seem to have lost sight of what it means to protect the public good. We forget that at our city’s peril.
Harris M. Steinberg is the executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. He led the 2006-07 public process to create the civic vision now guiding the development of the Central Delaware Riverfront.
Yes: Waterfront Sixers arena would be a win for jobs, inclusivity.
By Ryan N. Boyer
Social distancing is nothing new for Penn’s Landing, as it has been distanced from development for years. While other parts of the city prosper, those of us who have lived in Philadelphia all our lives have watched Penn’s Landing projects and proposals come and go with very little to show for it.
However, over the past few weeks, there has been much discussion over the proposed development of a state-of-the-art, multiuse facility to house the Philadelphia 76ers. An opportunity unlike anything we have seen in this city for decades. Planned for Penn’s Landing, the development is projected to generate more than 35,000 jobs and billions in long-term economic impact.
Instead of collaborating with the developers to strengthen and formalize commitments to the community, some political elites are more concerned with access to the riverfront than access to opportunities. While they tout Philadelphia’s real estate renaissance and its status as an international destination in recent years, our workforce and our communities of color are still being left behind.
Those political elites also seem to have forgotten that even though they have a guaranteed paycheck, their constituents are struggling to pay the bills and provide for their families. In order to develop opportunities, we must develop the landscape. There will still be plenty of open space remaining at the riverfront even with the new arena.
As business manager of the Laborers’ District Council of Metropolitan Philadelphia and Vicinity, I proudly represent my working-class brothers and sisters in the building trades, many of whom are Black and brown. I am unapologetically supportive of projects and programs that advance our working-class communities and communities of color, and both are a big part of the Sixers proposal.
“These kinds of employment and economic opportunities are essential to combating systemic racism.”
Anchored by a Black-owned development company, the project already includes minority hiring and business development opportunities. The NBA has been helping to raise awareness and support for racial justice, and the Sixers organization has been a powerful voice in that effort. They understand that these kinds of employment and economic opportunities are essential to combating systemic racism.
In addition, we can point to specific projects in which we have successfully negotiated for substantive participation by diverse firms. The expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Philadelphia Live! Casino and Hotel project are two such examples. By negotiating and holding construction and development firms accountable, we can ensure that the Sixers arena project will generate similar benefits. That will require leadership from our elected officials, and a willingness to put the best interests of our communities first.
For my brothers and sisters in the building trades, the project must embrace building with skilled, union labor. Any additional projects that the arena attracts must also encourage union jobs with good pay and benefits. As we have watched the coronavirus pandemic cripple our economy and devastate working-class families, it makes perfect sense to counter unemployment from the pandemic with job creation.
The ball is in our court, and with proper oversight, taking this shot on the Sixers arena will benefit neighborhoods and working-class families across the city.
Ryan N. Boyer is the business manager of the Laborers’ District Council of Metropolitan Philadelphia and Vicinity, an affiliate of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).