Facing Displacement from 76ers arena project, Philly Chinatown says “NO!”: Interview with Kaia Chau and Taryn Flaherty, Students for Preservation of Chinatown

Interview with Kaia Chau and Taryn Flaherty by Eddie Wong. Posted March 17, 2023

Introduction:  Philadelphia Chinatown is facing an imminent threat to its survival as the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team seeks to build a new arena at its doorstep. Kaia Chau, a junior at Bryn Mawr College, and Taryn Flaherty, a sophomore the University of Pennsylvania, are the co-leaders of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC). Eddie Wong interviewed them on March 7, 2023 about their efforts as part of the Save Chinatown Coalition.

Taryn Flaherty at mic with Kaia Chau at rally protesting Penn State University Board of Trustee members who are pushing the 76er arena: Adelman, Blitzer, and Harris. Photo from SPOC IG page.

Eddie Wong: Could begin by telling our readers about what’s happening in Chinatown with the 76ers arena?

Taryn Flaherty: Currently, there is a proposed 76ers arena right next to Chinatown. It’s being proposed to replace the Fashion District and will sit right on the same block as Chinese owned businesses one block away from the Friendship Arch in Chinatown. This entire process has been done without any type of open community engagement. This proposal happened in July 2022 and was just released in a news article. It didn’t really incorporate the community. Since July, there’s been massive organizing, both internally in Chinatown and across the city against this arena, and so SPOC is one of those organizations.

Both Kaia and I were the founders and co-leaders of SPOC and both of us were daughters of longtime Chinatown activists and educators. Both of our moms (Debbie Wei and Helen Gym) were involved in 2000 against the stadium in Chinatown and again with a proposed casino in 2008. Both Kaia and I were alive for the 2008 protest, and we remember marching through the streets. So, 15 years later, we’re facing a similar situation. Kaia and I formed SPOC to organize students. And then once we realized that, Penn State and Drexel University specifically had very strong ties to the developers of the arena, we started organizing students to hold our institutions accountable.

Eddie Wong: Why are the developers fixated on this area?

Kaia Chau: Chinatowns all over the US have always been historically targeted by these large developments. Look at cities like DC and Seattle, those Chinatowns have been significantly affected or even destroyed by these large developments. Honestly, it’s because 1) Chinatown is predominantly low income and 2) it’s also predominantly non-English speaking, which makes it easy to do things behind community members’ backs. The first location that they proposed for the arena was in Penn’s Landing, which is predominantly white and wealthy, and as soon that was proposed they said, “No, we don’t want it in our neighborhood.” The Sixers backed off. But in Chinatown the Sixers or the developers thought they wouldn’t have any opposition because they weren’t publishing any accurate news in Chinese.

But I think they underestimated the community because the community has already fought off a stadium and casino and we know how this goes by now and we know they’re trying to take advantage of us. I don’t think they were expecting us to have so much pushback, like overwhelming pushback from the majority of the community.

Image from Philadelphia 76ers/76Place.com/

Eddie Wong: I see from news reports that 90 businesses in Chinatown have signed a petition opposing the arena. Can you describe the breadth of support you’re getting.

Taryn Flaherty: Internal Chinatown organizing has taken the entire time since July 2022. The coalition is made-up of several organizations both citywide and internal to Chinatown. but the core group includes some long-time organizing groups like Asian Americans United, Asian Arts initiative, API PA, which is somewhat newer, but those groups have been basically first: tabling in Chinatown basically every weekend with information flyers and talking to residents, business owners and people passing by to educate about the arena. There was a huge effort of basically going around to each business in Chinatown and talking to them about the arena and so now it’s up to like about 100. The vast network of businesses who are actively against this arena shows that people who are in the community, people who work here every day, and who send their children to school here, they don’t want this in their neighborhood.

Kaia Chau: It’s important to know that a majority of Philadelphians overwhelmingly are opposed to the arena, not just people in Chinatown. If the arena were to be built, it would be in the middle of the city, bordering a major artery, Market Street, which is where half of the city commutes to work every day. One of our two major train lines is there. It’s really just not a good place to put a 18,500-capacity arena. In Chinatown, it’s all one-way streets; there’s no way that our city has the infrastructure to hold this many people in such a condensed area. It’s also important to note that the developers are the only ones that are pushing that Philadelphians want this and it will generate economic growth. And now it’s just us against three billionaires with more money than you could ever imagine. That’s really what it’s come down to at this point.

Eddie Wong: I understand that the developers are offering $50 million in community benefits as a way to get people to side with them. How are people reacting to it?

Kaia Chau: So, with community benefits agreements, that’s a common strategy that big developers use when they’re trying to build a really big development. And there’s a lot of opposition. I mean, that’s what happened with the Barclays Center, which is where the Nets play in Brooklyn. It was built in a predominantly Black neighborhood. And a lot of people opposed it, and then they’ve offered a bunch of money in the form of community benefits agreements, which are basically “Oh, we’ll give you, like $10 million to build a park, and then you can let us build our arena here.” But what ended up happening was that after the arena was built there was no more community to utilize those community. benefits. So, it’s kind of pointless, and that’s definitely what’s happening now.

Eddie Wong: Are any groups interested in doing that?

Taryn Flaherty: I would say there has been. The developer groups behind the arena created a steering committee that they cite a lot as their way to guide them to create robust community engagement. But the steering committee, a lot like these private meetings that the developers have, require an invitation. You have to be almost explicitly pro arena and so a lot of the groups that are in the steering committee have been suspicious in the eyes of our coalition leaders. One group in particular that people are very concerned about because they have so much weight behind them, is PCDC, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, because in past fights like the stadium and casino fights, they seemed neutral at the beginning and then eventually were against the stadium or against the casino. And now they’re on this steering committee with access to these developers and haven’t had a clear stance. (Ed. note: UPADATE – the PCDC announced its opposition to the arena project on March 16, 2023 after its survey showed that 93% of store owners and 94% of residents opposed the proposed Sixer’s arena.)

Kaia Chau:  I just wanted to add that big developers try to divide and conquer with the money that they have. That’s definitely what they’re trying to do here. They’re trying to divide the community, but I think because we have such a strong group of vocally opposed businesses and residents against the arena, whatever organization that was thinking about taking community benefits agreements are backed into a corner and forced to say that they’re opposing the arena. None of this information is like officially confirmed. This is just like what me and Taryn heard. We are organizing students and hearing all of this information like secondhand.

SPOC rally photo from Wawusi Ture Facebook post announcing March 3, 2023 rally against billionaire developer David Adelman at Campus Apartments, Philadelphia.

Eddie Wong: Tell me more about the decision-making process. I understand that the city has to give them a zoning to allow them to actually build it. So, you have some political pressure points. When are they going to decide about the zoning?

Taryn Flaherty: So, originally this was entirely a private deal between the owner of the Fashion District and the Sixers’ developers, but because they want to take over this Greyhound bus station, that’s a rezoning where city government and Mark Squilla, the Council member for Chinatown, can play a pretty crucial role in this. Originally the developer said that they wanted everything set in stone by June, but because of the overwhelming anti-arena sentiment, they’re pushing it back to the fall.  City Council isn’t in session in the summer so they’re either going to try to introduce a zoning bill in April.

The coalition is planning on rolling out a campaign around city council candidates because the elections are coming up on November 7, 2023. But they could introduce a bill in the fall and then the fight would happen in City Council chambers. Mark Squilla is probably one of the most important characters in this entire situation because there’s a council member prerogative; whoever’s district that a specific development falls under, the city council pretty much follows the district council member. Mark Squilla has come to community meetings, so he is aware of the anti-arena sentiment, but he’s in the middle and not saying that Chinatown is really against it. There is obviously a huge effort to pressure him to side with Chinatown because we are his constituents like. David Adelman is not his constituent. The developers are not his constituents. They don’t vote for him. We vote for him. So, there’s huge effort around that.

Eddie Wong: Is someone going to run against him? Is there going to be a contested primary for that seat?

Kaia Chau: No, I don’t believe so. But I think people in Philly are passionate about their city politics and if Mark Squilla doesn’t listen to his constituents not as many people are going to vote for him. And then someone’s probably going to run against him in the next election cycle. He has a lot to lose by not listening to his constituents.

Philadelphia Chinatown Archway. Photo from Wikimedia.

Eddie Wong: So, it seems it all comes down to the zoning matter.

Kaia Chau: Legally, yes. But I think it’s not going to be a good idea for the developers to start a project that no one in the city is supporting. The whole motivation behind building a new arena is because right now the Sixers have to pay rent to the Wells Fargo Center, and they don’t make as much money as they can. But if they build an arena that no one wants to go to that’s probably not a good idea for them.  Shooting down that zoning law, we need overwhelming citywide opposition to the arena.

Eddie Wong: Will that issue be part of the mayor’s race? Taryn, your mom (Council member Helen Gym) is one of the leading candidates.

Taryn Flaherty: Yeah, as of right now, the coalition is focusing on the primary elections in May. The mayor does get to set the tone of large developments happening in Chinatown, but we can look to each candidate’s records and see what they would do in this case. SPOC isn’t going to be a huge presence in the city council campaign because students just don’t vote in huge numbers. They’re never the deciding factor because a lot of students don’t live here. They might not live here after college, or they still vote in their hometowns. SPOC doesn’t really have a huge role in the campaign fight.

Eddie Wong: SPOC has demonstrated against developer David Adelman, who also owns crappy student housing projects. How do you expose him?

Kaia Chau: We’ve been doing a lot of teach ins and have a template for a presentation that always covers David Adelman and also the other two developers who are the owners of the Sixers but have been a little bit quieter, Josh Harris and David Blitzer. David Adelman is the CEO of Campus Apartments, which owns a majority of the housing around Penn and Drexel, but also nationwide too. He made billions off of student debt because he charges an egregious amount for rent and the apartments are really bad. People go into debt for that. In this past semester, over 700 students were on the wait list for on campus housing at Penn and when you can’t get on campus housing, Penn pushes students to David Adelman’s apartments. He is also part of gentrification of a historically Black community. To make billions and billions of dollars more, he’s moving on Chinatown too. All of these fights are super connected. College students can really be passionately about this as well. No one should have a monopoly over housing. And if you’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition, you shouldn’t be forced into another apartment where you have to pay even more thousands.

A big thank you to @anakbayanphilly who partnered with us to host a teach-in about the arena’s proposal at Temple University. We spoke about how the arena would displace the Chinatown community and followed that up with an art build!. Text and photo from SPOC IG page

Eddie Wong: How much does he charge for an apartment?

Taryn Flaherty: I think it varies. I’m dealing with this now because I’m one of those students who don’t have on-campus housing. It varies from studios, single bedroom to the quads, but from what I’ve seen it’s at least you know $1,000 per person. A three-bedroom apartment is even more expensive. You have to pay $1,000 per month for an entire year in which some students may not live in Philly in the summers. Everyone’s kind of scrambling to find people to rent out to so that they’re not paying for housing that they’re not living in. Penn also charges an egregious amount for housing, but Penn as an institution has the responsibility to house its students. It shouldn’t be a fight to the death with other students to find the cheapest housing. The cheapest house I’ve seen is like 10 people and you’re still paying like $700 to $800 per person. Campus Apartments, owned by David Adelman, they don’t take care of their  buildings.

Eddie Wong: Do you think that kind of pressure is going to have an impact on him?

Taryn Flaherty: Both in past fights around the casino and the stadium, the shaming campaigns were a huge project. That was more definitive because they focused on political figures where you rely on the public. David Adelman and billionaires don’t rely technically on anyone. However, David Adelman is very much cited in newspapers like he’s about to save Market Street. He’s about to save the city and so I think targeting him as we have at least peeved him a lot because we know that he tracks us. We know that he’s following our accounts and what we do. His entire brand relies on him being this gracious billionaire, a philanthropic figure. But if we destroy that image, I think a lot of organizations will pull back from him because it’s pretty clear that the arena is very predatory.

Eddie Wong: You’ve got a lot of people in the city supporting you, so that’s a big plus. Don’t they have an alternative to take the arena somewhere else?

Kaia Chau: There are plenty of places. They could stay where they are the Wells Fargo Center. It’s in a very industrial place; they’re not really disrupting any communities and it’s super convenient. Just get on the Broad Street line and you’re there. But they’re just hungry for money and think that they can get away with building it on Market Street. They have all the money in the world to find a different location and find a place where there isn’t overwhelming opposition. I don’t think they realize that we don’t have the infrastructure for that development. These billionaires don’t live like normal people; they have private drivers to drive them everywhere. They live in the suburbs. They don’t know what it’s like to live in the city and have to commute with public transportation or to walk through these major arteries of the city.

Taryn Flaherty: And plus, they don’t give a shit, as long as they make money.

Eddie Wong: What’s been the most gratifying thing in the process of your organizing? What’s impressed you the most about people? What’s made you the happiest?

Taryn Flaherty: I would say the students. Organizing students is hard. People have told us that it’s hard, but now we know firsthand how hard it is to grab someone by the shoulders and say “You should care, how do you not care, come out with us.” Both students and the residents of the townhomes (70 Black and Brown residents face loss of their homes as their low-income housing project will be sold for up to $100 millon) have come to every action speaking out about joining our fights together because it’s both about gentrification. It’s both about housing rights and community. It’s really heartwarming and encouraging to have both adults and people my age standing with us.

Drexel Community for Justice right now is sitting in at Drexel University’s main building to get Drexel to commit $10 million for the preservation of the Town Homes as low-income housing. Their second demand is to remove Altman, who is the developer owner of the University City Townhomes, and David Adelman from Drexel’s real estate advisory board. I was a bit floored by how quickly Drexel Community for Justice added on Adelman to their demands. They’re fully sitting there, day and night, being harassed by police each night and added Adelman to their demands because they believed in SPOC and the Chinatown fight. It’s very moving.

Community rally with supporters from University City Townhomes. Photo by Dailey Pennsylvania.

Kaia Chau: I was going to say the same thing, honestly. The University City Townhomes is the last sort of apartment complex of affordable housing in University City, which used to be a neighborhood called the Black Bottom. But Penn and Drexel basically pushed all of the original residents out, and the UC Townhomes are the last standing low-income housing that predominantly serves low-income Black residents, and the landlord is trying to sell off the building so he can make more money, which means that the residents are going to be evicted. So, when me and Taryn started organizing, the student organizers for the UC Townhomes approach us, and it was “Hey, we’ll help you out; we’ve been doing this for a while, and we know how to organize students and how to pressure institution.” They’ve been extremely, extremely supportive and the residents as well come out to all of our protests and events.

They’re just so much solidarity across the city. There’s also the fight to save the FDR Meadows. Philadelphia was chosen as one of the cities to host the World Cup. For some reason, they want to tear down a public park called FDR Park, the only big green space that’s accessible and free to low-income communities. The city wants to tear the meadows out and build turf on top for soccer players to practice. And they have also been extremely supportive as well. What’s been the most like meaningful to me and moving to me is like how well we’ve been working together and how supportive we’ve been with one another. It’s all the same fight, and we’re all fighting the same systems. And when we joined together, it makes us like a lot stronger than if we were just to fight on our own. And that just makes me  really proud to be from Philadelphia.


Interviewer’s bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He was active in the fight to save Little Tokyo in Los Angels from urban redevelopment in the mid-1970s.

Featured Image:

Posters designed by Alyssa Chandler and Kenny Chiu for SPOC. Posted in PhillyVoice.com

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