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Feb 3, 2023
The trend is undeniable : Major sports teams now see the land around their home bases not just as parking spaces, but as potential sources of revenue. Philadelphia Flyers owner and 76ers landlord Comcast Spectacor has visions of creating their own mixed-use complex on what has long been an ocean of parking lots — even as the Philadelphia 76ers seek to leave the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly to build their own downtown arena . The city is abuzz with excitement for its Super Bowl-bound Eagles, hinting at the potential for such a complex. The 76ers are NBA title contenders this season and the Phillies made last year's World Series in Major League Baseball. But in a city with a longer history of failure than success in sports and a tenant eyeing the exits, the current buzz around the Wells Fargo Center can't last forever. And Comcast Spectacor is no closer to taking full advantage than it was before the pandemic. Bisnow/Matthew Rothstein When sporting events aren't happening, the parking lots surrounding Lincoln Financial Field (left) and the Wells Fargo Center are as empty as they are vast. Comcast Spectacor and its development partner, Baltimore-based Cordish Cos ., have shown they are capable of delivering on some promises. They built the 80K SF bar complex, Xfinity Live!, in 2012 between the Wells Fargo Center and its neighbors, Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park. At the north end of the South Philly complex, Cordish opened a Live! casino without Comcast Spectacor’s involvement in November 2020. Yet some of the partnership’s more ambitious plans were dashed by the pandemic, Spectacor Sports & Entertainment CEO Valerie Camillo told Bisnow. “Our intended timing has been delayed slightly by the pandemic, and it disrupted the direction for what the next phase will be,” Camillo said in an interview Monday. “But we’re tremendously excited for the next phase with our phenomenal partner Cordish.” An esports arena and office building that Comcast and Cordish announced in 2019 are both off the table, and the future of an entertainment-focused complex is still in the conceptual stages, though current plans include a multipurpose event venue that may retain some esports capability, Comcast Spectacor spokesperson Sean Coit said. Parent company Comcast is also exploring ways to integrate parts of its media empire into future entertainment uses. “What we see working there is going to be continued opportunities for pre- and post-event entertainment: unique and experiential,” Camillo said. “And really to make it a neighborhood that integrates into surrounding South Philly in a positive way.” Cordish declined an interview request and responded to a list of questions about its partnership with Comcast Spectacor and potential plans at the stadium site with a statement from Chief Operating Officer Zed Smith. “The South Philadelphia Sports Complex is one of the most unique and exciting areas in the country,” Smith’s statement read. “Building off the tremendous success of Xfinity Live! and Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia, we are incredibly bullish about the future of the Sports Complex and see enormous opportunity for additional development adjacent to Xfinity Live! with our partners, Comcast Spectacor. "We are committed to delivering a best-in-class, mixed-use district and moving forward on a game-changing development that will cement the Sports Complex as one of the leading premier sports, entertainment, hospitality, and tourism destinations in the country.” As teams, stadiums and their owners across the country are hard at work on becoming multipurpose destinations, the South Philly complex is in an odd, if exciting, position. Xfinity Live!, the bar complex that sits between the three stadiums in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, seen in 2014 “It’s sort of an anomaly because you have so much impervious cover and concrete, and it creates a different environment,” Enoch Lawrence, Cushman & Wakefield Sports & Entertainment Capital Markets lead, said of the site. “You have a gigantic blank slate from a sports entertainment perspective. And you have the tailwind of how well the Eagles are doing, the excitement and attention on sports in Philly.” Converging In South Philly Even if the 76ers complete their move, the complex will still host football, baseball and hockey teams in three of the four most popular professional sports leagues in the U.S., rooted on by the seventh-most-populous metropolitan area in the country, according to the most recent census data. The site has a subway stop, NRG Station, at the end of the Broad Street Line, which nearly always operates with half of its access points closed off, security personnel at the complex told Bisnow. But all of NRG Station’s entrances were open Jan. 29 when the Wells Fargo Center hosted a Villanova University basketball game. The Eagles also played in the NFC Championship at what locals call the Linc that day, and the massive social event it became showcased the potential of the site as a civic destination. It also served as an intense reminder of the downside that comes with prioritizing cars for such huge gatherings. After the Eagles won and punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, thousands of fans who had attended or tailgated the game poured out of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex to revel up and down South Broad Street, all the way to City Hall. They were joined by thousands more all over the city, who knew from experience how much energy (and chaos ) can be found on the streets after big wins for the local teams. Those who walk from the stadiums to celebrate downtown tend to wait until they pass the residential neighborhood just north of the complex to start climbing local infrastructure , according to neighbors living just off South Broad Street. Their consideration allows those who live closest to the stadiums to feel some civic pride watching Philadelphians come together in joy. Even Mayor Jim Kenney has been spotted in the neighborhood, residents told Bisnow. But those who drive to games can be problematic, both because of the way they flood residential streets to find free parking spots and because of the partying they do at those spots, said Ellen McCrossen, director of Sports Complex District Neighbors, the local registered community organization, who lives on 13th Street. “They’re drinking on our steps, urinating on our lawns,” McCrossen said. “This past Sunday, there was a guy sitting drunk asleep at the wheel of his car in front of our house for two and a half hours after the game.” A satellite image of the South Philadelphia Stadium Complex, which sits east of FDR Park and south of the residential part of South Philadelphia. Farther to the west, the edge of the former refinery currently being redeveloped as a distribution hub can be seen. The Sports Complex Special Services District, a nonprofit organization funded by Comcast Spectacor, the Eagles and Phillies, received glowing reviews from neighborhood residents for the work it does to clean after games, its frequent communication with residents and its attempts to protect parking spots by placing police cars at the entrance to side streets. But tailgaters show up earlier and earlier to beat the cops, McCrossen said. “On Eagles games, you’re a hostage,” one nearby neighbor told Bisnow during a canvass of the neighborhood. Dare To Dream, Within Reason Comcast Spectacor controls the development rights for 63 acres of the South Philadelphia Sports Complex bounded by Pattison Avenue to the north, Broad Street to the west, 11th Street to the east and Terminal Street to the south. The idea of filling in some of the asphalt between the three stadiums is not a new one. Construction of Xfinity Live! happened years before developments like the Atlanta Braves' Battery at Truist Park , the Golden State Warriors' Chase Center and much of what now surrounds Washington, D.C.'s Nationals Park. “At that time, [Xfinity Live!] was one of the first things in the country to take the step of expanding beyond the four walls of the venue, and to have entertainment, dining and experiential retail for the before and after,” Camillo said. Though it often has live music and sometimes hosts nonsports events like beerfests, Xfinity Live! is more of a fan amenity than an entertainment destination all its own, partly by design. Its 2019 plans for a 200K SF office tower and a $50M esports arena would have traded on the draw of the arenas without depending on games for revenue. The shortcomings of neighbors depending on sporting events were laid bare by the pandemic. The disruption it caused also spelled doom for Comcast's mixed-use plans. As Philadelphia's office buildings have still not even returned to half-full, office supply went from a scarcity to a glut, Camillo said. Comcast's plans to build an arena for its Overwatch League team, the Philadelphia Fusion, got as far as a ceremonial groundbreaking in September 2019. But the Overwatch League pivoted to focus more heavily on streaming soon after the pandemic began, calling the Philadelphia Fusion's players to South Korea, from which they never returned. Comcast acknowledged last year that the Fusion would not be anchoring the project, and on Dec. 30, the company announced the official renaming of the Philadelphia Fusion to the Seoul Infernal. By then, it had already gone back to the drawing board at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex. The city of Philadelphia owns the land, and Comcast Spectacor has a long-term ground lease with the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development that allows it to build 375K SF of commercial development by right, Coit said. The company also is entitled to build a hotel that would not count against the approved 375K SF. Anything else — including residential uses — would require new approval by city council. Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp ., which represents PAID in dealings with Comcast Spectacor, declined to comment as did Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson . The complex sits within District 2, which entitles Johnson to unchallenged control on land use matters thanks to the tradition of councilmanic prerogative . Though its development rights are not tied to a specific portion of the complex, Comcast Spectacor plans to focus its next developments on Lots F, G and H, which surround Xfinity Live! at the northeast corner of Comcast’s sphere of control, Coit said. The ground lease requires any development that would take the place of a parking lot to include enough spaces for the entire complex to maintain the same capacity. Even though the next phase of development is supposed to add vibrancy and attractions beyond sporting events, the fans who drive to the complex for games are the unquestioned priority. Over 75% of attendees at Wells Fargo Center events drive to the arena from outside the city, Camillo said. “That’s only increased since the pandemic,” Camillo said of the car-based contingent. “So that fact alone — that our guests live in the suburbs and start their journey to our complex there — matters and continues to matter. That is something that will remain a priority for sports properties in Philadelphia for any foreseeable future.” Bisnow/Matthew Rothstein The sidewalk outside the South Philly Sports Complex on South Broad Street abruptly disappears for about 100 feet, right where pedestrians would be crossing into the residential area to the north. The complex sits in the crook of an elbow formed by Interstates 95 and 76, with South Broad Street serving as a multilane access point. FDR Park, where the city is underway on a controversial $250M revamp , lies on the opposite side of that drag. For fans, crossing Broad is more popular as a local sports blog than as a means of walking to games. A Pedestrian Future? Even though the focus on cars can make the complex look and feel like an island set apart from the rest of the city, the closest homes are only 0.6 miles north, starting at the corner of South Broad and Geary streets. The residents of those homes regularly walk to games, as a handful of them told Bisnow, and the Wells Fargo Center was only a 12-minute walk for an able-bodied adult reporter, walking briskly on a cold day while occasionally stopping to take photos. Though it may be short, the walk north on South Broad Street is less than pleasant. Just south of where houses begin, the sidewalk disappears for about 100 feet, with grass and dirt that pedestrian traffic often turns to mud in its place. Neighbors who spoke with Bisnow complained of being forced to decide between getting dirty or walking in traffic. The patch without a sidewalk has been there since Veterans Stadium was demolished in 2004. Sports Special Services District Executive Director Shawn Jalosinski said at the most recent quarterly meeting with neighbors that it is next on the organization’s list of priorities, said McCrossen, who also serves as the voting director for District 1, one of four geographical divisions that comprise the special services district. The SSD always gives advance notice to residents when the teams that fund it propose a new development, but the unaffiliated casino “blindsided” the neighborhood, McCrossen said. Combined with Xfinity Live!, the casino gives the complex plenty of nonstadium development already, at least until more is done to protect the surrounding area from disruptions, McCrossen said. “Enough is enough,” she said. “We already get plenty of traffic late at night from people who were drinking at Xfinity Live!” The stadiums’ relative isolation from densely populated areas is seen as a positive by residents from elsewhere in the city, especially residents of Chinatown seeking to block the 76ers from building an arena adjacent to the neighborhood. But even if Comcast Spectacor doesn’t move forward on any development plans, and if the Eagles and Phillies continue to have none, that isolation may not last much longer. “In a few years, this will be a bustling district with lots of new development, whether what’s going on in the Navy Yard or the massive goings-on nearby from Hilco,” Camillo said. “There’s a really bright future for South Philadelphia that is going to look nothing like what walking there today looks like.” The Philadelphia Navy Yard is just to the south of the sports complex, though it is separated by highway overpasses and on-ramps. It continues to grow as a center for office and life sciences, and a multifamily component is part of its developers’ next phase . On the far side of FDR Park lies the site of the former PES refinery, which Hilco Redevelopment Partners is redeveloping into a sprawling industrial complex called the Bellwether District. The only use that HRP has planned for all but a northern slice of its site is for logistics — not necessarily known for adding vibrancy to an area. Courtesy of Comcast Spectacor A 2019 rendering of the $50M esports arena from Comcast Spectacor and The Cordish Cos. The project has since been discarded. Much like new development cannot come at the cost of parking spots at the complex, no pedestrian improvements will be allowed to disrupt the highway access the stadiums enjoy, which Camillo said is the envy of stadium districts everywhere. “It was contemplated to be conveniently located for arrival from the various communities that comprise our fan base, and in a way that doesn’t disrupt the surrounding community,” Camillo said. “I would say that it is an urban planning success in that way.” Even if its attendee data is heavily weighted toward drivers, the complex doesn’t necessarily have to plan its future as if that will never change, Cushman & Wakefield’s Lawrence said. “If you have so many drivers, maybe they don’t all want to drive,” he said. “Maybe you can implement a park-and-ride hub farther away so you can aggregate the drivers to come in via transit. Maybe you can implement solutions to encourage people to stay for two or three days to be a true destination event. It would probably be some hybrid between those [ideas].” However Comcast Spectacor decides to shape its future, any new development is months away from a concrete proposal. Though Cordish has staff dedicated to the new master plan full time, Comcast Spectacor’s resources are focused on completing its $350M redevelopment of the Wells Fargo Center, which will culminate in changes to the exterior this summer, Camillo said. Camillo stressed that only her company’s human resources are limited. “The pauses had nothing to do with financing, to be clear,” Camillo said of the esports arena and office plans. “We’re a Fortune 50 company, after all. We’re simply no longer going to proceed with something that doesn’t make sense now.” CORRECTION, FEB. 3, 12:00 A.M. ET: A previous version of this article misstated the cost of the improvements to the Wells Fargo Center. This article has been updated. Contact Matthew Rothstein at email@example.com
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