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Philadelphia’s Market Street East searches for growth and renewal — with or without a new Sixers arena

The Sixers' proposal has brought new focus to Market East’s needs as big events near, including the World Cup and America's 250th anniversary in 2026.

Market Street East has historically been a center of commerce, featuring big department stores such as Lit Bros., shown here. More recently, after the big department stores died, the corridor has positioned itself as a more affordable alternate to upscale competitors.
Market Street East has historically been a center of commerce, featuring big department stores such as Lit Bros., shown here. More recently, after the big department stores died, the corridor has positioned itself as a more affordable alternate to upscale competitors.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Walk east from Philadelphia City Hall and you’ll encounter a Market Street brimming with achievement, despair, potential, and ruin.

At 13th Street stands businessman John Wanamaker’s divination, the 1911 grand opening of his department store so monumental an occasion that the president of the United States, William Howard Taft, came to personally dedicate the building.

That Wanamakers is now a Macy’s, where in December a store security guard was stabbed to death by a man who police said was stealing hats. The upstairs offices-for-lease are two-thirds empty.

On the north side soars a Marriott Residence Inn, set in the bones of what was once the Market Street National Bank, an art deco dream with a skyline like the steps of a Mayan temple. For 40 years an adjacent parking lot has made most of the block an empty space.

The eight-block stretch from City Hall to Independence Mall once constituted the grandest shopping district in the metro region, a center of commerce and community where people stood 12 deep to watch the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day parade.

Now storefronts sit empty, pedestrians watch their backs at night, and the SEPTA trains that roar into Jefferson Station are missing thousands of riders who left during the pandemic and haven’t come back.

“It’s a dead space between cool places,” said Siarra Gbakima, a recent Temple University graduate who worked at a Starbucks near the station. “A place where people have grandiose ideas that don’t land.”

Today the reach from the Hall to the Mall is getting fresh attention, more than in years, driven by the Sixers’ controversial plan to build a $1.55 billion arena and apartment tower at its center. The team says the project will power a Market East renaissance, while critics doubt an arena that plans to host 150 events a year can revitalize much of anything — and could actually hurt.

Chinatown activists contend that putting an 18,500-seat arena on their doorstep will ultimately destroy the neighborhood.

What’s certain is the Sixers’ proposal has people debating, analyzing, and dreaming about the future of Market East.

One new study said the corridor needs lots of help, and another indicated that not much is on the way: In downtown Philadelphia, 66 big real estate projects are proposed, under construction, or recently completed — but only one on Market East, the arena, which even if approved would not open for seven years.

“I don’t need a study to tell me that Market Street East is in extremis,” said John Connors Sr., president of Brickstone Realty, as he ticked off a list of businesses that are closed or moving. “That’s what we’re dealing with on the ground.”

Still, despite its privations, the city’s traditional Main Street holds strong assets: unrivaled access to rail, subway, bus, and speed-line service; gorgeous, historic architecture; parking lots and vacant stores that, while unsightly, offer prime land for new construction.

The city’s biggest development battle in years has landed in the heart of Market East — as the clock ticks.

In 2026, ready or not, the street will be tasked to fulfill its role as gateway to the Independence historic district and hotelier to out-of-town guests, with millions of people expected to take part in the FIFA World Cup, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and the gala celebration of the nation’s 250th birthday, the Semiquincentennial.

“We need a big vision,” said Phil Goldsmith, a former city deputy mayor and managing director. “The issue should be Market Street East and what should be done for Market Street East. To say, ‘Let’s pop this arena in there,’ and not look at other solutions, doesn’t seem to be a strategic way of looking at things.”

A retail revival upended

Market East has so many challenges that it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe with the one that nobody saw coming, the one that stalled what looked like an unstoppable revival.

In spring 2015, the city and its development partners embarked on a top-to-bottom, $420 million transformation of the sagging, 1970s-era Gallery mall. Buoyed by $90 million in public support, the flashier Fashion District would draw national chains and top brands while driving additional development.

Brandywine Realty Trust spent $17 million to buy the hulking, 330-space parking garage at Seventh Street, intending to redevelop the property as Market East emerged. Change seemed possible at the Eighth Street parking lot, where plans for an office tower, casino, and Disney entertainment center failed after the Gimbels building was torn down in the late 1970s.

Sprays of bright confetti greeted the Fashion District opening in September 2019. Four months later, the U.S. confirmed its first case of COVID-19.

Today the Eighth Street parking lot is still a parking lot, and the garage still a garage. Fashion District owner PREIT twice filed for bankruptcy protections, surrendering its share of the mall in December.

On Market East and elsewhere, the pandemic emptied office buildings, cut transit ridership, and lowered foot traffic.

“It’s going to be very, very challenging to bring people back,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a UCLA information-studies professor who examines how remote work is changing society. “It’s a huge issue for everyone from retailers to those who care about public spaces.”

Philadelphia companies like Independence Blue Cross and Comcast have ordered workers back. Mayor Cherelle L. Parker wants city employees in their offices all five weekdays, saying it will boost Center City by helping small businesses and enhancing public safety.

But many employees don’t view saving downtown Philadelphia as part of their job descriptions. For them and millions of Americans, commuting to work in an office, once a daily facet of middle-class life, has come to seem expensive and time-consuming.

About 35% of those whose jobs can be done remotely now work from home all the time, up from 7% before the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center.

At Jefferson Station, atop of which the Sixers plan to build, one of every four weekday commuters — who bought lunches, grabbed snacks, shopped, and stayed after work to meet friends at restaurants — has vanished.

Overall ridership on SEPTA regional rail and subway lines is down more than 40%, bus ridership off 25%.

The impact of those missing people is punishing: in the Market East area, 23.9% of office space was vacant at the end of last year, higher than Philadelphia as a whole, according to commercial real estate firm CBRE. The number of residents, visitors and workers in Center City was 83% of the pre-pandemic level in November, according to the Center City District, which works to enhance the vitality of downtown.

All of that has left Market East struggling for air. And uncertain from where the next breath will come.

“We might never return to the five-day workweek,” said Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociology professor who studies the effects of the pandemic. “That poses some existential challenges for central cities.”

Big blank walls

When founder William Penn and surveyor Thomas Holme designed Philadelphia in 1682, they set Market Street — then called High Street — as the main east-west axis. They made it wide, 100 feet across, the better to forestall the spread of two perils of the age: plague and fire.

If Broad Street was the spine of the city, then Market Street would be its shoulders.

Colonial fish and vegetable stalls expanded west from Front Street, and over time the wares and businesses along Market East grew to include practically everything, from hotels to silks to shipping firms, Temple University historian Stephen Nepa wrote in his account of the area.

On Market East, in a couple of rented rooms beside what is now a Dunkin’ Donuts, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. George Washington and Benedict Arnold lived on Market East.

America’s first circus building opened at 12th in the 1790s, an amphitheater that put on equestrian shows. At Eighth Street, John Keely’s supposedly groundbreaking scientific discoveries, including a “vaporic” force to drive motors, drew investors who learned too late that he was fooling all around him.

If you keep walking east past 13th Street, Market East reveals a condition that neither Penn nor Washington — nor even the fabulist Keely — could have imagined: the big walls of structures that turn sidewalks into funnels.

On the south side rises the SEPTA office and the Loews hotel, the latter set in the former PSFS building, built on the same spot as the circus. To the north shimmers the block-long, 1,400-room Philadelphia Marriott. The largest hotel in the city locked its Market East entrance three years ago and hasn’t reopened it yet.

More walls tower ahead, including the stone edifice of the Robert N.C. Nix Sr. Federal Building that covers half a block on Market and the whole of Ninth Street.

The ailing Fashion District, a property key to Market East, is three sheer, inward-facing blocks.

“We need to rethink the whole thing,” said Akira Drake Rodriguez, a University of Pennsylvania scholar who studies the politics of urban planning.

Despite its walls, she said, Market East could be brought to human scale, made less institutional and more engaging by adding elements that attract people: courtyards, pocket parks, residences, new businesses. Rodriguez sees the option of mall or arena as a false choice, proffered by billionaire sports owners seeking profit and city leaders lacking foresight.

“Maybe we can just take a beat,” she said. “‘What else could go there?’ As opposed to, ‘This mall is dying; let’s replace it with another playground.’”

The role of arenas

An example of a possible future stands at 11th Street, where the subtly named, $1 billion East Market project broke up a dense block and added stores, apartments, and a MOM’s organic market. The lights and paving invite people to wander through courtyards to the boutique Canopy hotel, set in the 19th-century Stephen Girard Building, then onto an open space christened Jefferson Plaza, which offers refuge among busy streets.

“Our vision was always to do two things,” National Real Estate Development president Daniel Killinger told a fall news conference. “One, to be a catalyst for future development. … Second, we’ve talked about this for years, is that the project needed to be a bridge [that] linked neighborhoods.”

Killinger spoke amid the release of a study conducted by the architectural-and-design firm Sasaki Associates, which envisions a mixed-use Market East, full of diverse businesses, shops, and housing — and a basketball arena. It imagines a Market East that connects neighborhoods and institutions in all directions but especially north to Chinatown and south to Washington Square West and the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital campus.

The route needs small things, like planters, trees, hanging baskets, and places to sit. And it needs big things, the Sasaki report said, like a civic plaza, which could be encouraged by redesigning the corners at the intersection of 10th and Market.

“It’s an incomplete street that pre-pandemic was slowly moving in the right direction,” said Paul Levy, who recently retired as chief executive of the Center City District.

The arena would claim the western third of the Fashion District, covering the area from 10th to 11th and Market to Filbert Streets. Neighbors say they fear losing popular attractions like the AMC movie theater, Round 1 Bowling alley and arcade, City Winery music venue, and Wonderspaces art experience.

If the arena is built, Levy said, the key will be “not to treat it as a one-time event, but to treat it as the trigger, and the leverage, to improve a street that’s absolutely important to the prosperity, vitality and jobs in the city.”

The Sixers promise the arena will be built with private money, without city tax dollars, although they’re open to state and federal funding. And they say it will deliver huge economic benefits, including $1.5 billion in new tax money.

That’s important because providing more money for services and schools ranks among five key standards the city government set for deciding whether to let the Sixers go forward. The others are protection for Chinatown, a diverse workforce, a 30-year commitment, and a healthy South Philadelphia Sports Complex, from which the team would depart.

The Sixers, a tenant at the Wells Fargo Center, want to own their building so they can control and benefit from everything that goes on inside, from scheduling to spending.

They have declined to share the calculations behind their tax figure. And they’ve made other bold claims, including the creation of 1,000 permanent jobs and $400 million in annual “economic output.” Meanwhile, the city-sponsored studies that are supposed to offer clarity to decision-makers are months overdue.

Sports-economics expert J.C. Bradbury says no one in Philadelphia should expect big financial gains from a new arena.

Similar claims accompany the push for every major new sports venue, the scholar said, but as he and academic colleagues wrote in a 2023 study, decades of research “consistently demonstrates that professional sports stadiums generate little to no tangible economic impacts in host communities.”

That’s true no matter the funding model used to build them, the Kennesaw State University economics professor said. Team-sponsored studies always predict big returns from new arenas and stadiums, he said, because that’s their purpose.

“I’ve never seen a commissioned study,” Bradbury said, “in which it’s a wash or it’s negative.”

A generational chance?

Connors, the Brickstone president, has spent most of his working life on Market East, arriving in December 1985 as a young merchant banker for Merrill Lynch Private Capital Inc.

Company leaders asked him to look at the Lit Bros. building, then empty and damaged by fire, on the north side of Eighth Street. Their client, Brickstone, had found value in redeveloping 19th-century textile mills in New England.

To Connors, the 1893 Lit building looked a lot like an old mill, except it was in the middle of a city, not beside a river.

He joined Brickstone as its man in Philadelphia and took on the $90 million renovation. A few years later the property earned the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Honor Award as the nation’s best large-scale commercial rehabilitation.

Connors subsequently worked on renovating the Wanamakers building and the SEPTA offices at 1234 Market, and turned the old City Hall Annex into what is now the Notary Hotel.

Four decades on Market East taught him two important lessons:

First, change is slow, but it’s constant.

In the 1980s he helped create the Market Street East Improvement Association with G. Stockton Strawbridge, the business and civic leader who envisioned the route as a grand European boulevard. Today, improvement-association companies that constituted a Mount Rushmore of business elite — Strawbridge & Clothier, Wanamakers, Stern’s, the Rouse Co., PNB, PSFS — are dead and gone.

Second, cataclysmic events like pandemics carry profound consequences.

The Fashion District never got out of the gate. The Target at nearby 11th and Chestnut closed in 2023, citing poor performance. Wawa shuttered its store at 12th and Market over crime concerns.

The Marshalls at 10th Street closed, and so did the Burger King. District Taco couldn’t make it.

To Connors, a Sixers arena is not just desirable but critical. He asks: Does anyone see another company ready to spend $1.55 billion on Market East?

At a time when the transit systems that make the street attractive are struggling for income and riders, Connors said, the Sixers aim to fill train cars with people who will drink, dine, and spend in Center City.

“East Market Street is a ghost town after five o’clock,” said Connors, now chairman of the improvement-association that Stockton Strawbridge once led. “And that’s not always been the case. And shouldn’t be the case.”

The future was supposed to be sunnier. In the early 1960s the city government projected that Philadelphia’s population would rise through 1980, reaching about 2.2 million. And that the majestic department stores that defined Market East were permanent, the challenge how to best move shoppers from building to building.

In fact the city population was entering a historic decline that ended only in 2008. The department stores were already dinosaurs, fated to perish not in a blinding flash but to limp into extinction, one after the other, harried by the flight of their customers to suburban shopping malls.

Snellenburg’s closed in 1963, Lit Brothers in 1977. Gimbels moved to the new Gallery and died there in 1986. Strawbridge & Clothier disappeared in downsizings and Wanamakers became a Macy’s in 2006.

In the face of that upheaval, Connors said, Market East set about reinventing itself, turning historic buildings into offices and retail space. Now it needs another way forward.

One possibility may be experiential retail, which aims to give customers unique, immersive experiences, a trend delivered by the same pandemic that hollowed large-format stores.

What, he asks, could be more experiential than a world-class arena? Or more inclusive than basketball and music?

“Moving the needle in a city the size of Philadelphia is really hard to do,” Connors said. “If we miss this opportunity, it’s not going to come around again.”

′Energy Philly deserves’

A big challenge facing the Sixers is how to create activity at the arena on days when no events are scheduled.

To do that, they’re working on plans for the public, street-level floor, an open, pass-through space that will include escalators to the seating levels and access to SEPTA transit.

That space will support restaurants and stores, and the mix will be key, the Sixers say, because the area will need to perform several functions — draw visitors, serve commuters who want to grab a bite, and welcome fans arriving for events.

“Someplace that people have a reason to go to and want to go to,” said Alex Kafenbaum, senior vice president and head of development for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Sixers. “An experience on event- and nonevent-days and every day of the week.”

Yes, said David Adelman, the billionaire Sixers part-owner and development-team leader, hosting 150 games and shows means the arena would be empty about 200 nights a year. But, he asks, how many major events does Market East host now? Zero.

The project must be viewed in total, Adelman said — an arena, but also retail, dining, a remade mall, and a 20-floor, 395-unit residential tower that will introduce new neighbors who’ll buy locally.

“I’ve never said the arena solves all of Market Street’s issues,” Adelman said. “What I do say is it’s the catalyst for revitalization. … You will see an energy that downtown Philly really deserves.”

People will come to an area that’s intriguing and safe, he said. The Sixers’ proposal includes hiring safety ambassadors, adding security cameras, and upgrading street lighting. A restaurant or small business can afford to open nearby if it can count on huge crowds at specific times, he said.

Directly across from the arena site, on the south side between 11th and 10th, stands what is probably the roughest block on Market East.

The CVS pharmacy is still in business, but the Marshalls beside it is gone. The 1940s Robinson department store, designed by Victor Gruen, hailed as inventor of the shopping mall, is closed and hidden behind plywood. The former Rite Aid drug store is empty and locked.

Adelman said the Sixers’ purchase agreement includes two southside properties — and a 50% stake in the remaining two-thirds of the mall, now owned by California-based Macerich. A partnership agreement will govern leasing, expenses, and other decisions.

When Adelman looks into the future, he sees a changed Market East.

Five years after the arena’s opening, he expects, the boarded-up storefronts in the middle of the street will be gone, high-rise, mixed-use residential remaking the corridor. He anticipates a new Thomas Jefferson University science building, and even that the infamous “Disney hole,” the giant dig-turned-parking-lot, will be transformed.

“You don’t get that without what I’m doing,” Adelman said. “You don’t encourage investment, risk capital, banks, financial institutions, to put money there until they believe it’s a solidified, safe place to put capital. And we’re taking the risk capital with a billion and a half dollars.”

Options beyond an arena

For three hours the ideas flew, more than a hundred people gathered at a forum to suggest what besides a basketball arena could go at 10th and Market: a library, high school, public pool, garden, playground, health clinic, night market, art space, apartments, shops, or maybe a community center where seniors and children would be welcome and safe.

Green space was a big aspiration, preferably in the form of a park, maybe on the roof.

“The more ideas we generate, the more people can imagine a different reality,” said one participant, architect Katherine Antarikso.

Community leaders, activists, designers, and college- and high-school students came to the Center for Architecture and Design, traveling from nearby Chinatown and from South Philadelphia, Center City, and the Northeast.

“It’s the people’s response to a site that we think should have a lot of input from the public,” said Rashida Ng, a University of Pennsylvania associate architecture professor who helped lead the session, cosponsored by the Coalition to Save Chinatown.

The goal was to identify the most compelling suggestions and generate renderings and cost estimates.

No one spoke in favor of a Sixers arena. And no one was keen to knock down part of the Fashion District, given the taxpayer dollars it has consumed and the cost of demolition. Instead, people wanted to open its walls so pedestrians could more easily move between Chinatown and Market East.

The Bok Building served as a model, the former South Philadelphia high school now home to a bounty of small businesses, nonprofits, and artists, attracting people from around the city to the spectacular views of its rooftop bar.

The Sixers called the group’s proposals “unrealistic and unworkable,” not ones that belong on a struggling commercial street.

“This exercise proved what we’ve said all along,” arena-project spokesperson Mark Nicastre said in an email. “There is no proposal for another project. There is no other private investment for another project. There is no public funding to commit to another project.”

People at the forum said the discussion needed to move off an arena-or-nothing dynamic. A problem on Market East and in Philadelphia, they said, is the city government only contemplates the future in response to developers’ wishes. Amenities that improve citizens’ lives, like libraries and playgrounds, are seen as expenses, people said.

“It’s important to have a more robust conversation about what this part of the city should look like,” said workshop organizer Domenic Vitiello, a Penn planner who studies Chinatowns around the country. “It’s not in the interest of private developers to allow people to dream.”

Treasure-hunt shopping

Retail specialist Michael Berne thinks Philadelphia gave up on the Fashion District too soon.

Remember, said the president of MJB Consulting, the mall closed during renovation — and not for six months or a year. It closed for four years, during which customers found new places to buy. Then it reopened into the maw of a once-in-a-century plague.

No one knows whether the Fashion District could have been more successful, Berne said. But it’s clear that cities require a mix of stores and price points to serve different customers.

A short walk from Market East, the Rittenhouse Square area offers the richest retail setting in Center City. It’s the place for shoppers seeking a $3,000 Brunello Cucinelli sports jacket or a $78,000 platinum Rolex watch.

For those who can’t afford a timepiece that costs as much as a Tesla, Market East long offered decent goods at reasonable cost.

The Fashion District’s early focus on outlets like Century 21, Burlington, and Primark was the right fit, Berne said. Century 21 closed in the pandemic, but the others remain a bright presence, attracting customers by offering treasure-hunt shopping that promises brand names at lower prices.

“That’s the space Market East could still occupy,” Berne said. “There’s still a lot of enviable retailers in and around that Fashion District. Saying, ‘Let’s put an arena on part of that,’ it felt like waving the white flag.”

′Don’t write the obituary’

Keep walking east to the point where the lawns of Independence Mall come into view, and the corridor’s challenges land as one. Properties that change too quickly. Properties that never change.

The giant brick box of U.S. District Court fills the entirety of Seventh to Sixth, and the old Rohm & Haas building, home to The Inquirer, offers another blank wall on the south side.

Across the street from the courthouse, Geator Gold radio is gone, as is the Geator with the Heater himself, Jerry Blavat. A “coming soon” sign announces the arrival of Koch’s Deli. A nail salon, walk-in medical clinic, and a couple of empty storefronts help fill in the block.

Klinenberg, the New York University professor, has hope for change on Market East and places like it — not immediately, but eventually.

He sees the pandemic continuing to exert its impact, evident in diminished downtowns. Many people remain wary of crowded subways and buses. Everyone’s irritable. But at the same time, he said, people are rediscovering the basic human desire to connect in person.

Cities encourage that, offering convenient, quality restaurants and bars, and promising the joy of unexpected interaction, like bumping into an old friend on the street. Meanwhile, business managers worry that empty offices are making their teams more isolated and less creative, and some signs indicate that younger workers miss building relationships with mentors.

All of that could bring more people into cities.

“I wouldn’t write off East Market just yet,” said Klinenberg, author of the new book, 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed. “We’re experiencing a moment of acute pain, and we’re probably going to be here a while. But I wouldn’t write the obituary just yet.”