Strong Towns President Chuck Marohn once described stadiums as “the universal sign of economic desperation.” At the time, he was referring to a soccer stadium hugged by two highway ramps on the waterfront of Chester, Pennsylvania. The ramps were meant to service the stadium, and the stadium the ramps, according to elected officials who spoke in support of one or both projects. In the case of Chester, both promised an “explosion of economic development” which ultimately materialized in the form of the city filing for bankruptcy 10 years later. Nevertheless, elected leaders across the country continue to look to stadiums, casinos, headquarters, and similar “megaprojects” as means of revitalizing downtown.
This article was written Asia Mieleszko by and originally published by Strong Towns.
One project gaining controversy in recent weeks is the proposed construction of an arena in the middle of Philadelphia. At a cost of $1.3 billion, the team behind 76 Place—colloquially referred to as the Sixers Arena—promises to “revitalize Center City,” otherwise known as Philadelphia’s downtown. The exact location, Market East, is blocks from city hall and some of the city’s most trafficked destinations, such as Reading Terminal Market, retail on Chestnut Street, and Chinatown. At the same time, Market East has baffled local officials, developers, and business owners alike for being a “dead zone,” evidenced by the rows of shuttered shops lining “the most transit-rich location in all of Philadelphia.”
For champions of the Sixers Arena, Market East’s reputation makes it ripe for reinvention. “The chosen location is a key step in the process of developing a destination that provides Center City and surrounding communities with an economic engine generating activity through 76ers and youth games, concerts, events and more,” said David Adelman, a key developer of the project. Adelman and the project’s supporters routinely echo “success stories” from other cities that have constructed or moved stadiums to more central, downtown locations. Some of these, by their metrics, include Atlanta, Sacramento, and Detroit.
Opponents, however, believe that the “dead zone” the arena aims to fix was created by projects just like it. In her op-ed, “Why the proposed 76ers arena is a false solution to dead zone on Market East,” Dr. Akira Drake Rodriguez remarks that stadiums have an inherently limited schedule and “when the space is empty — which is most of the time — they are devoid of life, and surrounded by massive open space that’s energetically dead.” She likewise points out that the arena is inheriting the failures of Market East’s current occupant: The Fashion District, a controversial $340 million mall whose financial insolvency is routinely blamed on bad timing.
Rodriguez and other opponents of 76 Place don’t disagree that Market East needs reinvention, but it’s the means to the end that matters. Rather than looking to other cities for inspiration, Philadelphia should look to its own bustling neighborhoods, like one on the perimeter of 76 Place: Chinatown. Chinatown borders the “dead zone” of Market East and yet doesn’t share in its economic stagnation. Both neighborhoods struggled to stay afloat in the aftermath of the pandemic, but the latter’s fragility (the multimillion-dollar Fashion District filed for bankruptcy three years after its opening, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and a waning interest in retail) stood in contrast to Chinatown’s ability to bounce back and welcome new businesses alongside the old.
For 5th Square, a local non-partisan political action committee, Chinatown exemplifies the type of economic resilience that Philadelphia should be investing in. “We believe this site would be better suited for building what already makes Center City and Chinatown such special places to live, work, and visit: mixed-use buildings with street-fronted retail and dense residential units—places that welcome residents, visitors and patrons around the clock and all year long,” 5th Square wrote.
Critics of the project cite counterpoints to the “stadium success stories” offered by the 76 Place Team. In her aforementioned op-ed, Rodriguez cited a report examining 130 economic studies over 30 years, concluding, “there is little to no economic gain to a city in regard to stadiums.” Members of coalitions that have spawned in opposition to the arena readily point to DC’s decimated Chinatown, for which The Capital One Arena shoulders the blame. “I think D.C. [sic] is a perfect example of the type of impact that Philadelphia would see, if the sports arena were to be sited where it is proposed right now,” Bethany Li, the legal director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Philly Voice earlier this year.
Chester, located barely 10 miles outside of Philadelphia, offers another cautionary tale for Philadelphia. “They haven’t given the city s———, as far as I know,” said one local about the city’s stadium in a 2019 piece for The Athletic. Others, conversely, celebrate that, like the nearby casino, the stadium has at least brought steady employment to a city in economic distress. Nevertheless, with a price tag of $122 million, most locals expected to see more benefits.
In fact, residents are still waiting for the facilities they were promised, including a supermarket, to materialize, now 15 years after the contracts were signed. “There’s a stadium that stands empty more than 300 days per year, whose only interaction with Chester is the quarter-mile stretch of Route 291 between ramps to Route 322 and Interstate 95,” the Delco Times concluded in 2018.
Another lesson for Philadelphia might be found in Richmond, Virginia, where a $1.5 billion proposal to reinvent a neighborhood around a stadium was abandoned in 2020. That project would’ve redeveloped Navy Hill, “one time a thriving African-American community [that] was decimated to facilitate the construction of Interstate 95 and, eventually, make way for the Richmond Coliseum,” Strong Towns Editor-in-Chief Daniel Herriges wrote about the Navy Hill project before its cancellation.
Much like with Market East, Herriges’s skepticism toward the multimillion-dollar project doesn’t suggest that Navy Hill didn’t need attention. Rather, he looks to some of the world’s most celebrated urban areas and asks: “What good could be accomplished if the time, energy, and resources spent on that project in the coming years were instead put into a less risky, more diversified set of public investments?”