If and when the 76ers and Philadelphia apartment developer David Adelman realize their dream to build a 18,500-seat basketball stadium between 10th and 11th and Market, it will come at the expense of the Fashion District Philadelphia, the outlet mall and entertainment complex that opened in 2019 with the aim of resuscitating Market Street.
The new stadium would prove a few things: First, in this town, fashion will never be the gamechanger sports is. We like to think of ourselves as stylish, but the truth is Philadelphians are more likely to rally around James Harden than haute couture. More importantly, it will test whether the city really can provide the infrastructure, investment and urban planning solutions necessary for Center City to realize its full potential.
» READ MORE: The Sixers want to build a new $1.3 billion arena in Center City
It will also would prove that it takes an influx of people from outside of the city for Philadelphians — especially those who live in underrepresented communities — to get the amenities we deserve in what’s supposed to be our downtown.
When the Fashion District Philadelphia replaced the beloved —albeit beleaguered — Gallery Mall in fall of 2019, the $300 million shopping complex was supposed to revive the Market Street East retail district, considered the country’s oldest commercial street.
It was supposed to do what the Gallery Mall had stopped doing decades ago.
The Gallery was one of the country’s first city shopping malls when it opened in 1977 anchored by Gimbels and Strawbridge & Clothier. The Gallery II opened in 1983 and with the addition of JC Penney’s and 105 new stores, making the four-story, four-block structure the largest downtown shopping complex in the nation.
Even as the mall was being constructed, white flight was underway. The exodus of white Philadelphians to places like New Jersey and Montgomery County meant the disappearance of many basic goods and services within the city limits. SEPTA ran its busses and trains regularly when people from the burbs traveled into town for work, but switched service to hourly during the off-peak. Trash blew down street. What was once one of the most posh shopping districts in the country was at the center of disinvestment.
Preit didn’t make any effort to keep The Gallery well-lit and inviting, management at King of Prussia and Cherry Hill upgraded the shopping experience. And when Strawbridge’s closed its doors at the Gallery in 2006 as department stores nationwide lost market share to big box stores like Target the Gallery never got another luxury anchor.
Still, the Gallery kept on keeping on because it was accessible to people who lived in Philadelphia. During the 1990s, it became a hub for Black-owned book stores, clothing boutiques and beauty supply stores. Black kids could hang out at pizza joints and soft pretzel spots in relative safety, and it was one of the few places where there was access to the limited public transportation.
When whispers started in 2014 that the Gallery Mall was going to undergo a renovation and become a mall filled with outlet stores, Black Philadelphians were skeptical that the Gallery they loved would become gentrified and unwelcoming.
Fashion purists scoffed. A mall filled with discount retailers does not a fashion destination make, they said.
The mall however, held its own with city and suburban shoppers thanks to Century 21, Burlington and Ulta. Bottom line: Philadelphians like a deal. When Fashion District Philadelphia opened in 2019, it was gleaming on the inside. The sidewalks were freshly paved, yet a collection of scammy check cashing places and cheap jewelry stores were still nestled in the blocks surrounding the new mall.
And even as City Winery and AMC Theater were starting to bustle, SEPTA service remained miserable, operating many of its suburban trains once an hour during the off-peak as if the transit users who lived in Philadelphia enclaves like Germantown, East Oak Lane and Wynnefield didn’t matter.
Any hope that the Fashion District could have been what it promised ended with COVID.
Preit, the Philadelphia-based real estate and trust company that owned and managed the property, filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Majority ownership was transferred to California-based Macerich. The pandemic also forced stores, including, Century 21 to close. Malls had been moving in the entertainment complex direction before the pandemic. And now that Americans are wearing yoga pants, sweats and pajamas in our home offices (except when we are going to postponed pandemic weddings) interest in designer fashion continues to drop.
Two years later, the majority of Center City workers haven’t returned. Market Street remains dirty and deserted. Philadelphia needs a a win.
The Sixers $1.3 billion sparkling arena with private money, promising an influx of suburban commuters could be that win.
The stadium will likely have a greater fashion impact on the city than the Fashion District ever could. A downtown teeming with spouses, entourages and business associates of wealthy basketball players is definitely a good look.
Designer boutiques like Tory Burch, who the city has courted for years only to lose to King of Prussia, may finally want to open specialty stores in Center City.
The parts of The Fashion District that do manage to survive — and the jury is still out on that — would certainly benefit from the increase in foot traffic.
And because the stadium will lure in suburban visitors, the amenities and attention this area has been missing —Better lighting, cleaner sidewalks, and of course, better SEPTA — might finally arrive.
Organizers of 76 Place Market East Project — its name for now — called it the Madison Square Garden of Philadelphia. But it’s worth noting that the Garden has been a part of the fabric of New York since 1879, therefore it has grown and changed with the city, fitting organically into the existing infrastructure. When games end after 11 p.m., trains arrive regularly to take revelers home to every borough — and towns in northern New Jersey — within minutes.
The 76 Place Market East project is more akin to the Barclay Center, where the Brooklyn Nets have been playing since 2012. While the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn has benefited from the arena’s arrival in terms of retail and police presence, Brooklynites say they have lost a piece of their city. Beloved local bars were shut down, longtime residents were forced to move. And traffic is a mess.
So 76 DevCorp needs to think about who the stadium will serve. It’s imperative that they work with the Asian community who surrounds it. And it must be accessible to suburbanites and the Black and brown people who live in the areas outside of Center City who are have been diehard Sixers fans their entire lives.
If for some reason the stadium doesn’t work out, it’s important that politicians and city planners invest in cleaning up Market Street East. Philadelphians deserve decent lighting, a safe environment and trains that run more than once an hour off-peak, even if the Sixers decide not to call that corner of 10th and Market Street home.