"They Won't Show the Math Behind These Numbers" - Catching Up with Chinatown as the Sixers Arena Debate Carries into the Fall
There’s a bit of a lull on the 76 Place front after a flurry of press releases and related activity in late July and early August. That’s when the Sixers revealed new renderings for the project, which now includes a 250 million dollar mixed-income housing tower on top of the proposed Market East arena. The team also held a series of community Zoom meetings and revealed study results that say the project will produce about $1.5 billion in tax revenue at the local and state level.
On top of that, a bulletpoint press release explained that 1) that the Sixers are planning to give the land, purchased from the Fashion District owners, back to the city 2) waive the property’s existing tax break and 3) establish a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program instead. With City Council returning to session this month, we’re now waiting for the results of an impact study, commissioned by the city and paid for by the 76ers.
In the meantime, we wanted to circle back with Chinatown for reaction to these developments, and caught up with Mohan Seshadri, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance. We first spoke with Mohan alongside Kenny Chiu, a Philly native and opposition member, in a summer recording of Crossing Broadcast.
Crossing Broad: First things first, the new renderings came out with a mixed-income residential tower, adding $250 million dollars to the project. Your reaction to that news?
Seshadri: It would be nice to get this info before they send it out to the press. I think we’ve had a lot of people who are surprised that Chinatown is finding out about a lot of this news, given the claims of attention toward our community, at the same time everybody else is. But I can say that overall our answer is the same. Show us the numbers. They’re still putting out these really fancy graphics, these grandiose claims, and they’re still not showing the core math behind how all of this actually works. Our sense is that they are, frankly, going to keep trying to bulldoze their way through this thing. They’re going to keep making these really wild claims and hope people take them at their word. What we’re seeing, all across our community, all across South Philly, is that people are cottoning on to who they are, people are learning about what they’ve done in the past – Hahnemann Hospital, Black Bottom, Campus Apartments, places like those. They’re seeing that we have to take a second look at these things and ask the question of ‘should we take these folks at their word?’ Or should we dive into the math, analyze this, and then actually have a response to it?
CB: A recent press release had some bulleted information. The conveyance of land to the city, the removal of the existing tax break on the mall property, and the installation of a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program. You share the same skepticism regarding those items?
Seshadri: They’re putting out these really large claims, but they won’t show the math behind these numbers. When we did those Zoom infomercials, people asked for specifics and didn’t get them. They can keep making these claims. We’ve spoken to experts on arenas who say that one billion dollars in revenue is outlandish. And I want to be clear – I’m not a financial analyst or scientist, but we’ve talked to folks who are. They’re saying that is a wild claim, not backed up by reality. They’re also saying, quite frankly, that it’s hard to analyze any of this without the hard data backing it up.
CB: Right, I would assume that goes along with the press release saying that a little less than $500 million would be generated at the state level. It was a study done by a Maryland-based finance group, and obviously the information is shared in the release, but we’re not looking at the study ourselves.
Seshadri: Exactly, yeah, and developers aren’t going to put out anything that doesn’t back up their claims. But it’s still on the city and on us to do that due diligence and say, ‘hey, show your work, show your math.’
Photo via Sixers
CB: Let me skip to a later question then, because it segues better here. Going along with what you and Kenny told us on Crossing Broadcast, your main concern is a lack of information. The city is doing this study that I guess is supposed to come out soon, and it’s weird to me because I think you’ve got a double-edged sword here. The Sixers are financing it, so naturally there will be a claim of bias. But the other option is to have taxpayers foot the bill, which doesn’t seem ideal.
Seshadri: For us, the funding is certainly an issue. We know how this business works. We know how these firms work. But the original idea for an impact study? That came from us. That came from urban planners and design experts we talked to, who said ‘this is what you need in terms of a complete, independent, third party study.’ The full level of environmental review, public health review, traffic and parking, all of that jazz required to accurately understand the impact of this. We sent that off to councilmember (Mark) Squilla. We sent that off to everybody. All of our suggestions were systematically ignored, and that to us suggests that, for all of the talk of intention towards our community, being good neighbors, they’re being bullies about this. They’ve decided they don’t care about winning us over, and they’re going to put out studies that serve to justify the arena and not examine this. It’s not an independent process, and that at the end of the day is also bad for tax payers, this energy and time being sunk into something that is primarily going to pad the profits of billionaires at the expense of our community, again without the raw data showing how this benefits the city at large. That’s also bad for taxpayers.”
CB: Let me circle back to the community meetings you mentioned. They did a handful of Zoom calls, I believe three were in English and one was translated to Cantonese and the other Mandarin. I got a press release first criticizing these as “infomercials,” then there was another saying the translations were inadequate. Can you elaborate on that?
Seshadri: It’s our job to bring our community to the table, so when they started holding those infomercials, a number of our folks who spoke English were on the first one and they saw what it was. They called it a community meeting but we do community meetings every week and there’s dialogue, there’s back and forth, there’s accountability. The community decides the shape of the meeting and what it’s like, and this was really just a presentation. They set it up in that Zoom presentation view, or whatever it’s called, where the questions and comments just kind of disappear into the ether. It was pretty clear to us, based on what we heard from community members who were in the meeting, that the questions they were answering were not the specific questions being asked. They were cherry picking specific questions and leaving out a word or two, or a clause or two, to answer the question they wanted to answer. That’s not even getting into the Mandarin thing, and we’re talking about a community that doesn’t all speak English and is not the most technologically adept. They really need in-person, face-to-face, human connection, in a way that is language-accessible to them. So our people had to do the work of setting up Zoom for them and bringing them together in one space. That was the only way they could participate in the Mandarin Zoom meeting at all. What happened was that the interpretation was so bad and so garbled and they didn’t put any time or thought into learning how to do interpretation on Zoom. Most of our elders left halfway through because they just couldn’t understand anything that was being said.
(Seshadri goes on to note that community complaints included Chinese subtitles scrolling too quickly across the bottom of the screen, graphics that were largely in English and blurry, and the Q/A interpretation being inaudible for 10-15 minutes, plus a glitchy and unintelligible live interpretation)
It just felt slapdash. It felt incredibly disrespectful. And frankly, if you’re going to put the time into doing a whole choreographed infomercial, and make these claims about access, then do the choreographed routine fully in language as well. Don’t half ass it. That shows their mentality towards Chinatown and our community right now. We’ve had a year of misinformation and going behind our back. Now that that’s open they are spreading lies and conspiracy theories on social media and trying to bully and bulldoze their way through, rather than dealing intentionally with our folks.
CB: Last one, an open-ended question here. Obviously city council is back in session. There were dueling protests at City Hall, with Chinatown and union labor both represented. What do you see these next couple of months looking like and what’s the community’s focus here? What’s the short-range outlook?
Seshadri: A couple of things. We’re glad to see the developers realize that their proposal doesn’t have the support it needs to pass this year, and that they’ve pushed back their timeline to next year. You probably saw that we’re really focused on councilmember Squilla (ed. note – Squilla is the one who would bring this topic to vote, since the arena would be built in his district). He came to Chinatown and spoke to 350 of our people, saying that if the community does not want it, that it’s not going to happen. Now, of course, he’s saying that he didn’t mean community, that he meant communities, and that’s everyone in some unknown radius around Chinatown and Market East. We want to hear from them, too. We want to know who those communities are, and meet with them, talk with them, support them to make their voice heard, too. Because ultimately, this is about self-determination for all of our communities. If coming to Chinatown and saying that if the community doesn’t want it, then it’s not going to happen – and I hope that folks have seen over the last year that Chinatown is really fundamentally against this thing – if that’s not enough, then let’s hear from those communities as well, and make sure their voices are heard in this process.