Washington Square West debates pros and cons of proposed Sixers … – The Philadelphia Inquirer

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When the Washington Square West Civic Association met in October, president Tami Sortman held up a narrow blue-and-red flier that had been left at her house.

“Who all got this put on their door today from the 76ers?” she asked, displaying a hanger that touted the team’s plan to build a dazzling downtown arena. “Did anyone else receive it?”


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Vice president Marisa Shaaban said people on her street got them earlier. “It’s going around,” she said.

This fall, more than Sixers’ marketing material has been going around Washington Square West. Some residents are frustrated that after hearing multiple presentations on the arena beginning in June, the civic association has yet to take a position, even with a new mayor and City Council prepared to take up the issue as soon as January.

The association has set a neighborhood-only discussion for Thursday, with the hope, it said on Facebook, of reaching consensus on the neighborhood’s view.

Wash West, as it’s called, is along with Chinatown one of two big residential communities sure to be impacted by the $1.55 billion project planned for 10th and Market Streets.

Some residents favor the arena. Others are open to it at a different downtown site. And others, frustrated by waiting for the civic association to act, have formed a new group, No Arena Washington Square West, handing out buttons, stickers, and window signs. That core group of seven people has gathered about 700 signatures on physical and online petitions.

Jena Osman, a poet who teaches at Temple University, said she helped start the group because she worries about traffic, trash, crowds, and parking — and about overarching issues of what Philadelphia should become and who should get to decide that.

Building an arena, she and others say, is a generational decision, affecting the city for decades. What happens, they ask, when even that new venue is deemed outdated, since modern arenas and stadiums tend to be replaced after about 27 years.

“No one was sitting around Center City last year saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if an arena came here?’” said Katie Garth, a print artist involved in the No Arena group. “This isn’t a response to a city need; this is something the Sixers want.”

So far, lots of listening

Civic association president Sortman declined to be interviewed. Other board officers also declined to speak or did not respond to requests for comment.

The association recently posted a letter outlining 16 neighborhood concerns about the project that it sent to Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose First District includes Wash West and the project site.

The letter raised questions about fans’ game-day use of neighborhood parking spots, traffic management, tour buses, public-safety measures, outreach to people experiencing homelessness, and the handling of crowds that arrive at games via the PATCO stop at Ninth-10th and Locust Streets.

Squilla, a key player in the debate, says those closest to the arena site should have the greatest say in what happens there. The civic association has mostly been listening.

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In June the group heard from Sixers project leaders and from the team’s Wells Fargo Center landlord, Comcast Spectacor. Chinatown organizations and POWER Interfaith addressed the association in October. In November a consultant conducting the city’s community-impact study shared her initial findings with the neighborhood.

The arena would stand on Wash West’s northern border, on the footprint of Market to Filbert and 10th to 11th Streets, claiming the now-empty Greyhound bus station and part of the struggling Fashion District mall.

“We should be in some ways really thankful the Sixers are doing this,” said Wash West resident Casey Kuklick, who has watched Market Street East wither, “because otherwise what do you have there? A really struggling mall with not much going on and not much promise for the future.”

He sees an arena as a means to augment city services by providing trash-collection and security personnel, and to encourage fans to trade cars for mass transit.

Kuklick, a civic association board member, said the team and city must address the fears and worries of residents in Chinatown, where neighborhood polls show 90% opposition, but he also believes an arena would drive patrons to restaurants there. Ultimately, he said, he agrees with the Sixers that replacing a mall with an arena is exchanging a box for a box.

“Cities are supposed to be vibrant, crowded, busy, noisy places,” Kuklick said. “An arena is going to bring that to the neighborhood and the city. That’s a good thing.”

Neighborhood resident Jarvon Ravenell thinks an arena could help the city while not unduly impacting Washington Square West. For instance, he said, the venue is sure to bring more patrons to Market East-area restaurants and cafés, boosting their receipts, and creating a need for those businesses to hire more workers.

He thinks the site’s access to public transit could be a big public-safety benefit. He worries when he sees people drunkenly walking out of South Philadelphia sports venues after games — and getting behind the wheels of their cars.

“Get on the regional rail, on the subway, or the El,” he said. “Because I’m worried about my daughter and my wife if I’m driving home after a game.”

The Sixers say the 18,500-seat arena would only help its surroundings, attracting shoppers and diners, encouraging business development, and increasing foot traffic.

“We’ve heard a deep concern about the current state of affairs on Market East from the Wash West community,” David Adelman, the billionaire Sixers co-owner and lead arena developer, said in an interview before the team’s Nov. 16 public meeting on the arena. “A lot of people are encouraged [by] the notion that public safety is a huge priority for us.”

The team’s plan includes hiring safety ambassadors, upgrading street lighting, and adding new security cameras.

David Gould, chief diversity and impact officer for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns the team, said the Sixers are working on ways to allay concerns around issues such as parking and congestion.

“I’ve talked to people from that area who are excited about the additional foot traffic, about how this could support local businesses,” he said.

The ‘village’ of Wash West

The boundaries of Wash West reach from South Street to Market Street and Broad to Seventh Street, according to the civic association. It’s home to 16,225 residents, a place where old rowhouses meet new condominiums, and street-level retail features chic restaurants, cafés, and shops.

The neighborhood is 66% white, 13% Asian, 9% Black, and 7% Hispanic, according to an Inquirer analysis of data from Esri, a mapping and demographics company. Its $79,966 median household income is almost 45% higher than Philadelphia as a whole,, and the $541,867 median home value is more than twice the city figure.

Fully 82% of Wash West residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, more than double the city and national rates.

Residents see Wash West as a village, a place where neighbors know and chat with one another on the street, according to research by Sarah Yeung, whose firm was retained by the city to help analyze the impact of an arena on the communities around it. But neighbors also believe the character of Wash West is threatened by crime and homelessness, and by the growth of luxury projects that generate trash, street closures, and parking shortages, she said.

“Residents feel like there’s been a lot of development,” said Yeung, the principal of Sojourner Consulting of Philadelphia, “but the promise of development to benefit the entire neighborhood has not been realized.”

Wash West is culturally rich, home to Antiques Row, the Gayborhood, and the Walnut Street Theatre, billed as the nation’s oldest operating theater. Among its houses of worship are Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the country’s oldest Black churches.

Architect Louis Kahn lived in Wash West, where the park at 11th and Pine Streets bears his name. Historic markers on 12th Street honor two Black Philadelphians, sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and businessman and author William Still, who helped hundreds of enslaved people to freedom as an agent on the Underground Railroad.

Banker Nicholas Biddle lived in the neighborhood in the 1800s. So did a former king, Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon and the deposed king of Naples and Spain.

On the neighborhood’s east edge stands Washington Square, the six-acre green established by William Penn as one of the city’s five squares in 1682. Colonists used what was then called Southeast Square as a pasture and a graveyard for the poor.

During the American Revolution, it became a cemetery for troops on both sides. Native Americans were interred in the square, as were Black people both free and enslaved, and more than 1,300 victims of the city’s yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s.

Trees and promenades covered the graves as the city expanded.

The area has changed dramatically over time. And it could change again soon, with the Sixers planning to begin demolition in 2026, start construction two years later, and open the arena in 2031.

“At first it seemed like a great idea — why not have it nearby?” said David Kurkowski, a composer who is president of the Washington Square Citizens League, a current-events group at the Hopkinson House in Society Hill. But “the more we learn and understand, the more this seems like a bad idea.”

He worries about the disruption of thousands of fans spilling onto quiet neighborhoods after games. And that subways, trains, and buses would be disordered by years of construction at Jefferson Station, where the team intends to build.

“People are not opposed to a Center City stadium,” Kurkowski said, “but we’re opposed to that particular site. Surely there must be a better alternative.”

Inquirer graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.

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