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‘Our voices will be heard’: Philly’s Chinatown mobilizes against 76ers arena plan


‘Our voices will be heard’: Philly’s Chinatown mobilizes against 76ers arena plan

May 28, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Daniella Heminghaus
‘Our voices will be heard’: Philly’s Chinatown mobilizes against 76ers arena plan
A "No Arena" sign at the corner of N.12th and Vine Streets in Philadelphia on May 8, 2023 (Photo by Daniella Heminghaus, for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

PHILADELPHIA — Walking down N.10th Street from Market Street in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, you can’t miss the famous Friendship Arch, shops, markets, and restaurants serving a seemingly endless variety of Asian cuisines.

What has now become hard to miss are all the wheat paste posters and signs against the proposed new home for the Philadelphia 76er’s, which calls for moving the NBA franchise from its current location in South Philadelphia to the Fashion District at Market East, according to  76 Place, the development website for 76 Devcorp, the company behind the stadium.

The privately-funded proposed arena would be on Market Street between 10th and 11th Streets, just a two-tenths of a mile walk from the Friendship Arch. 

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star spoke with business owners and community members in Chinatown about the proposed stadium relocation and their concerns. 

For Sam Sam, owner of Little Saigon Cafe, who has lived in Chinatown for 42 years, has seen other developments try to work their way into the community. It was then that Sam and other Chinatown community members rallied together against these building projects and won.

With the stadium building location proposed just a little under half-mile from his business, Sam, like other residents and business owners in Chinatown, has some major concerns.

Safety Worries

Sam said he and his neighbors are concerned about a number of issues — but one worry is an increase in crime. 

“Their concerns are more [about] safety, the living environment, because the arena is not going to bring in any business to Chinatown for locals, anywhere. [It] will bring in more crime. [It’s] unsafe for the community. When the game is on, when the game’s off, all the drunks will come to town and harass all you female residents here. It doesn’t matter if you’re five years old or 80 years old” Sam said. 

According to 76 Place, regarding the safety concerns, they said that they “believe a new arena will have several benefits to neighboring residents and the City as a whole, including cleaner and safer streets, enhanced public open spaces and initiatives to reduce crime.” 

The group said it would also “implement a robust safety program to ensure the arena and surrounding area is a safe space.” 

Plans currently call for construction to start in 2026 and due to end in September 2031,  just before the 2031-2032 NBA season. 

76 Devcorp is also committing “​​$50 million to improve, strengthen and enhance communities around Market East – the largest community benefits agreement in the history of our city – and create jobs for Philadelphians across the city”

Sam believes that despite all the money around the proposed arena, Chinatown and its supporters can still win by putting pressure on their elected officials and sticking together. 

“Now, we all come together now and put pressure on the government, local government, to let them know our voices will be heard. Not to build for the billionaire. The elected officials should listen to the community people, the neighborhood and what they want, not for the billionaire. That’s what the country is about.”

Sam added that he and his community members will do what they can to “defeat this project.”

“We all come together now. Let’s see. And they pushed too hard for it but it’s not going to happen. I’m here. We’re not going to let it happen,” he added.

“[I’ve] lived here for 42 years, [own a] business and live in Chinatown, I know what we can handle. This kind of traffic and parking and this environment and the people, we can’t handle it. It’s too small. Chinatown is not suitable for any arena or stadium,.” he said. 

Echoing Sam is Mike Ha, owner of QT Vietnamese Sandwich Shop, also a short walk from the Fashion District. Ha said people do not associate game night with “ethnic foods,” adding that “as Chinatown businesses shrink, so will its residents.” 

When asked where Chinatown residents would possibly move to if they could no longer stay in their neighborhood, Ha responded, “it wouldn’t matter where we go. We have a 150-year history in Philly Chinatown. It’s like pulling City Hall out of Center City to make way for a highway. Where they put the new City Hall wouldn’t make a difference, they literally would have erased that part of history.”

Part of a long history

This would not be the first time development has caused concern in Chinatown.

An in-depth, localized series on Philadelphia’s Asian American Pacific Islander struggles and contributions done by the city’s NPR station, WHYY, with consultation by Japanese American media scholar and historian Rob Buscher, has detailed a timeline of Philadelphia’s Chinatown history from the late 1700s to present day — including Asian and Pacific Islanders joining the Union side in the Civil War. 

That time includes the first laundry being recorded at 913 Race St. in 1870 and Chinatown at 900 Race St. being recognized in 1876, and the Friendship Gate being completed in 1984. The series also showed a darker side of life in Chinatown with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Immigration Act of 1917, The Japanese American resettlement from 1942-1947,  9/11 and multiple instances where Chinatown community members were murdered in the city. 

The series also mentions the 1966-1973 Vine St. Expressway protests, The 1978-1984 Commuter Rail Tunnel Project, which “demolished much of the 9th Street edge of Chinatown properties,” and the 1992 protest proposal against the federal prison to name a few. 

Philadelphia’s Chinatown, located in Center City, dates back to the 1870s making it one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and due to its proximity to major transit lines aided in its economic prosperity and overall growth.

In 2000, developers wanted to put the Philadelphia Phillies ballpark there rather than its current South Philly location but Chinatown locals pushed back and won, according to the Associated Press.

Prior to that, as reported by Billy Penn, residents fought and won against having a prison and a casino in their neighborhood. 

This was all after developers put in the 12-lane Vine Street Expressway, cutting Chinatown in two despite local activists rallying against it. 

The expressway has caused not only a higher rate of pollution in the area, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, but also created disparities between the two sections. Safe walking access to the rest of the neighborhood as well as parks, community services such as access to nearby hospitals, youth programs, and elderly care centers, and tourist foot traffic are lacking in the northern side of Vine Street. 

In 2022, the city partnered with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation in an effort to cap part of the expressway as part of reconnecting the neighborhood and making it safer and healthier for residents to live and work.

College students join the fight

Back in Chinatown, Taryn Flaherty, a University of Pennsylvania student and co-founder and co-leader of the Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC), said the community is coming together to fight against the stadium.

“Young people … have always been involved in past fights to protect this neighborhood. In the casino fight, in the stadium fight, especially in the Vine Street Expressway fight, [these] were young people back then,.” Flaherty told the Capital-Star. 

Students across the city’s university campuses have been fierce advocates for the preservation of Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood.

“People do not want this here and it’s very visually clear. And so I think a lot of people, not just people who live here, work here, but like tourists or people who are coming from around the city into Chinatown can see that the community does not support this arena,” Flaherty told the Capital-Star. 

Last November, the Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, a coalition of Philadelphia college students and students from the nearby area who are dedicated to fighting against the proposed arena, along with other community supporters marched from College Hall on UPenn’s campus to the Campus Apartment headquarters to protest the proposed stadium, as reported by The Daily Pennsylvanian

They did so because of Campus Apartments CEO David Adelman. Adelman is also the Co-Founder of FS Investments and currently serves as the chairman of 76 Devcorp. 

Last year he made statements to the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding the proposed arena and how it would not “displace one business or resident.” 

Looking at the “no arena” posters on the wall of a local business, Flaherty said there is a whole group within their coalition who are community leaders who own businesses, that went around talking to other Chinatown business owners about the arena. 

“They went around going to every single business, talking to them about the arena, and asking if they would put this on the walls. So I think that’s how you know that like this wasn’t just like ‘oh we’re putting this up.’ No, each of these businesses have consented, have agreed, and actively support this effort,”Flaherty said.

The posters, she said, are also a way for the community to know when meetings are happening. 

In December 2022, David Gould, chief diversity and impact officer for 76 Devcorp, along with Philadelphia City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes Chinatown, met with community members and leaders at the Ocean Harbor restaurant to hold a town hall about the proposed stadium. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, there were “more than 200 people” gathered at this meeting and “boos, shouts, and catcalls” were lobbed at Gould. 

Flaherty said that seeing the posters almost everywhere in Chinatown further shows how the community does not want the stadium as its neighbor.

“People do not want this here and it’s very visually clear. And so I think a lot of people, not just people who live here, work here, but like tourists or people who are coming from around the city into Chinatown can see that the community does not support this arena,.” Flaherty told the Capital-Star. 

Health Impacts?

Residents also are worried about the arena’s potential health impacts, Flaherty said. 

“A lot of people are starting to bring it up more, the health impacts of the cars, the health impacts of the construction, it’s a lot of unclean air, it’s a lot of water. Concrete and runoff chemicals are very unsafe and so once again the aging population in Chinatown, the families, you probably have noticed, a lot of these people, elders and then also you see the little kids and they’re like running around,”she said. “So two very vulnerable populations, young people and older generations, being around that is so unsafe and really don’t want it.” 

In an EPA info webpage on Stormwater Discharges from construction activities some of the most commonly associated construction site pollutants include but are not limited to:oil, grease, concrete truck washout, construction chemicals, pesticides, sanitary waste, and debris. 

In 2022 researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania joined to create the Philadelphia Regional Center for Children’s Environmental Health alongside other colleagues from universities in the area. 

According to CHOP News, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s online news section, the center will “focus on four primary research and translation areas: Asthma prevention, lead exposure and harm reduction, air pollution, and reduction of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.”

76Devcorp stated that “environmental sustainability is a priority for us and we will take an approach that maximizes the positive economic, environmental and social impact of the arena to promote health and wellness for our communities and planet.”

Asked about the impact the proposed stadium would have on the neighborhood, a spokesperson for 76 Devcorp told the Capital-Star that the site was chosen because of “the success of downtown arenas in other cities” and the public transit accessibility there.” 

Developers also are working with transportation experts to analyze our fan base, where they come from and how they will get here in comparison to the existing conditions,” the spokesperson, Amanda Olszewski, told the Capital-Star.

Annie Chi, who works at Yamitsuki, a Japanese restaurant two blocks from the Fashion District, said she was concerned that the increase in traffic and lack of parking could add to locals’ woes, and potentially cause the downfall of Chinatown’s businesses. 

“Chinatown has all kinds of Chinese food, if it’s hard to find a parking space, if it’s not easy to go in, so why [make the] choice to go out?” Chi said, adding that she thinks the stadium should “stay in South Philly.” 

“We always go there if we want to have fun. If they have a game, we can go, we can visit. [it’s a] good choice right there. We don’t know why they’re coming into the city,” she said.