Michael Ha and his wife moved to Philadelphia’s Chinatown from New York City nearly 14 years ago in search of a business opportunity in Center City. Today, their restaurant, QT Vietnamese Sandwich, is a popular go-to spot for bánh mì.
After managing to retain around a third of their regular customers post-Covid-19 restrictions, the couple is now worried that they will have to go out of business and leave Chinatown with their 5-year-old son due to the proposed Philadelphia 76ers arena that might be constructed two shops away from their business.
“We wouldn’t have a choice. I think we would just be naturally pushed out. Chinatown would disappear,” Ha said, citing concerns about rising real estate prices and competition among businesses if the arena is built.
Last July, development company 76 Devcorp, which is headed by real estate developer David Adelman, proposed a plan to build the new 76ers arena at 10th and Market Streets near Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
Developers aim for the $1.3 billion arena’s construction to begin in 2028 and open in 2031 when the basketball team’s lease at the Wells Fargo Center expires.
“Quite simply put, there is no better place to build an arena in Philadelphia than in Center City, with its robust public transit infrastructure and existing dynamic businesses eager to serve fans and visitors alike,” said Adelman in a news release.
But the proposal was immediately met with fierce criticism from the members of Chinatown, who are worried about limited parking, traffic congestion, gentrification, displacement and the loss of Chinese culture in the area, among many other concerns.
According to Ha, he and his wife conducted market research for their business in Center City after moving to Philadelphia and found that more than half of the people in the neighborhood did not know what bánh mì is.
“So when the arena opens up here, I have to assume that when people come in, they’re thinking about pizza, hotdog and beers. They might be thinking about beef and broccoli or chicken wings, but they’re not thinking about the true ethnic food,” Ha said.
The business owner explained that when restaurants lose business, the supermarkets and wholesalers that supply these restaurants also gradually disappear.
Once the supermarkets disappear, which is an anchor for an Asian community, there is no more want to live in Chinatown. At that point, it becomes so diluted that everyone who doesn’t speak the English language well will just have a hard time navigating through the community. Plus, we will have to deal with the price increases that come with it.
Many critics point to the Capital One Arena as an example of what was once a cultural area that eventually transformed into an entertainment district due to gentrification.
The existing arena opened in Washington, D.C., in 1997 amid opposition from Chinatown residents. What was once home to community-owned businesses with a population of around 3,000 Chinese American residents in 2010 is now home to just 300. The arena forced many businesses and residents out of the area due to surges in rent.
“It has happened in D.C. and in other communities of color all throughout the U.S.,” Ha said. “When these big pocket corporations come in and develop something, all these smaller communities will just disappear. It has happened time and time again, but people just don’t realize that that is what will happen here.”
Afraid of a similar outcome, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has been rallying against the proposed arena, with opposition coming from alliances such as the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) and Asian Americans United (AAU). This has since garnered allies across the city, including Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC) and the Restaurant Industry for Chinatown’s Existence (RICE).
“This is not the first time that big developers proposed to build something without our input: the baseball stadium, the casino, to name a few,” Wei Chen, AAU’s civic engagement director, said in a press release. “We have defeated each one of them. We are ready to fight to protect our community.”
In 2000, community members successfully stopped a proposed baseball stadium on 12th and Vine Streets. Eight years later, they rallied once again to oppose the Foxwoods Casino project at The Gallery in Market East.
In response to the opposition, Adelman has stressed the support of business groups outside of the neighborhood and offered to negotiate a community-benefits agreement that involves business opportunities – something critics such as Tess Wei, the head of RICE, dismiss as propaganda for what they view as a land grab.
These people are solely thinking about increasing their own profit. It would take money away from small businesses in terms of putting competing chains in the area. They’re saying this will bring crowds, but in a way that they’re not there to go to Chinatown. It will just create traffic congestion.
Adelman has not responded to requests for comment.
In an April community meeting, Dr. Ying Zhang Lin, a former professor and the CEO and marketing director of World Financial Group in Chinatown, surveyed 133 businesses in Chinatown and found that 127 of them opposed, while six were unsure.
Not a single business expressed support.
The PCDC also conducted a similar study with 230 responses. They found that 93% of local business owners, 94% of residents and 95% of visitors oppose the arena as well.
As community leaders worked on requests for proposals (RFPs) for firms to conduct impact studies in the area, officials formally announced an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the impact, opportunities and challenges posed by the proposed sports arena.
“We recognize and appreciate that the 76ers proposal has generated significant attention across the city. While it’s an exciting opportunity, we must understand the impact it may have on the surrounding communities before any plans move forward,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in a press release.
Councilmember Mark Squilla explained that the studies will assess everything from building design and urban planning to economic, parking/traffic and community impact. Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), the city’s lead economic development agency, will facilitate the city’s due diligence and will issue RFPs to evaluate these considerations.
However, this was immediately met with criticism from community members and anti-arena advocates who claimed that the city’s RFPs are not detailed enough.
Many critics argued that the studies are biased and rushed as they were announced with less than two weeks before the deadline to respond, which is significantly shorter than most posted RFPs that require a mandatory pre-meeting followed by a four-week response period.
Community leaders also argued that handing the task over to the pro-development and banker-stacked corporation is a far cry from an independent evaluation. They claimed that the RFPs are bogus, citing a “flawed” traffic study that does not include appropriate traffic mitigation strategies.
While many believe that the RFPs have a built-in bias toward advancing the arena’s development, other community members are completely disregarding the importance of any impact studies.
“If any of these politicians are true friends of Chinatown, there is no reason for an RFP,” Ha said. “If 95% of Chinatown says no, then why are you still going through? For me, it’s a stall tactic. We already said no, yet you’re going to force us to go through these stall tactics, so what’s the point?”
Ha believes one of the main reasons the Chinatown area is usually chosen for new developments is due to the community’s low turnout in voter registration.
“Politicians only want two things from their constituents: money or votes,” Ha claimed.
Last month, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics filed a lawsuit against the super PAC (political action committee) For a Better Philadelphia and its relating 501(c)(4), alleging that mayoral candidate Jeff Brown helped fundraise millions of dollars on behalf of the entities, who in turn made expenditures in support of his candidacy.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the 76ers have ties to the super PAC, which received $250,000 from a Philadelphia sports team. As Brown has publicly declared his support for the arena, Chinatown business owners and leaders view the political contributions as a move by developers to buy the mayor’s office and advance the arena despite opposition.
“They know the voice of the community does not want the arena there, so we’re seeing them doing over millions of dollars of lobbying directly to lawmakers as a way to influence or get this arena to push through,” Wei claimed.
The Board has issued a temporary order to withhold expenditures influencing the mayor’s race and is also seeking monetary penalties for each expenditure that went above the contributions limit in both 2022 and 2023.
Brown’s office has not responded to requests for comment.
Besides community meetings, Philadelphians and Chinatown residents have been gathering to organize creative events to voice opposition and raise awareness.
College students are getting involved by challenging their universities. SPOC has organized protests to demand the removal of real estate developer Adelman and 76ers co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer from the board of trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School and Penn Medicine.
In February, the No Arena in Chinatown Solidarity (NACS) affinity group launched a “No More Wrecking Balls” parody music video, which features around 40 community members and supporters carrying opposition signs while dancing and singing to the tune of Miley Cyrus’ 2013 hit song “Wrecking Ball.”
“You came in with a wrecking ball / Completely disregarding us / But you don’t get to make the calls / All your promises are e-e-empty / And we’re re-e-eady!” participants sang as they destroyed a paper mache wrecking ball.
While the group began as a Jewish community effort to stand in solidarity with Chinatown, it has since grown to be multiethnic and diverse. According to Debora Kodish, a NACS organizer, teachers and students would gather in “educational hives” to discuss ways to teach the movement. The group’s “postcard hive” has since gathered more than 3,000 postcards with messages from people urging the City Council and the mayor to oppose the arena.
On April 27, NACS delivered boxes of the postcards along with the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance’s more than 15,000 petition signatures to the City Council.
To further dramatize postcard messages, the group staged a fashion show outside City Hall, with models wearing postcard-bedecked garments.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told NextShark:
I admire the unwavering activism around this issue! The concerns expressed by the Chinatown community and other neighbors citywide deserve to be heard and addressed. I have said from the beginning that any development in Chinatown, arena or otherwise, should be shaped by the desires and interests of its residents. West and Southwest stand with Chinatown.
Since the proposed arena was announced in July 2022, Chinatown community members have won commitments from city council members to vote no on any arena-related legislation introduced before the impact studies are completed.
According to Kodish, the opposition has also forced the developers to delay their timeline for the project. The Philadelphia Business Journal reported that the arena developers might not make their target date of June for a zoning variance.
However, there has been no sign of relent from developers, causing community members like Wei, who has lived in Philadelphia her whole life, to strengthen and spread the opposition to protect the businesses and families of the Chinatown community.
“The developers have no concept of the fact that something very beautiful and important can exist outside of the space and time of their concentration of wealth and capital,” Wei said. “There’s something so much more profound in a community that their money cannot buy. By them pushing the arena, it just shows how little they know about the community.”
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