By Matt Blanchard
The casino question roiled the monthly meeting of the Central Delaware Riverfront Advisory Group yet again on Monday, causing some of its 45 members to question the legitimacy of the PennPraxis public engagement process, and others to rally to its defense.
Forward progress was made – notably a call to publicize the group’s basic design beliefs before any more waterfront is lost to development – but not before considerable venting took place over the casino issue.
“We’re being told this is a values-driven process, and yet our major value has been ignored,” said member Jeff Rush, referring to strong anti-casino feeling in his South Philadelphia neighborhood.
The question is whether Praxis should in some way take a stand against casinos in Philadelphia. Anti-casino feeling runs high on the advisory board, but so far Praxis director Harris Steinberg has remained “casino neutral,” trying to plan the seven-mile waterfront around the two casino sites mandated by state law.
The Central Delaware Advisory Group was formed by Mayor Street’s original order empowering PennPraxis to create a waterfront master plan, and its purpose is to give a voice to stakeholders in government, labor and the neighborhoods.
The casino debate is hot among members after City Council voted last month to put an anti-casino referendum to voters on the May 15 ballot. If passed, the measure would ban casinos within 1,500 feet of a residential neighborhood, making the current sites illegal. The measure faces a challenge in state court, but casino opponents are scenting victory.
An obviously frustrated Jim Paylor, vice president of the International Longshoreman’s Association, urged the board to make itself relevant by reflecting what he said was the true wish of area residents: no casinos. He argued that the Praxis process was an “after-the-fact effort to soften the impact of the casinos.”
“It’s like, give me fish cakes and a soda on the one hand, while on the other hand you’re destroying my life,” Paylor said.
Defenders of the planning process came back with as much force, saying the casino issue cannot be allowed to derail progress on essential issues. Praxis, they point out, has no power to affect state law, nor the placement of casinos.
“This advisory board is not the entity that decides whether casinos hit the waterfront or not,” said Rina Cuter, director of PennDot in southeastern Pennsylvania. “I’m looking at a state law that says there are two casinos on the waterfront. If that changes, then we’ll change.”
Cutler reminded the group that, far from being able to stop casinos, they had as of yet no consensus waterfront plan, no funding source, no political plan, and no idea what private developers will buy into. All these things need doing, she said.
“The planning process is a marathon, not a sprint,” Cutler said. “We’re in this for years, not months.”
Praxis director Steinberg maintained his casino-neutral stance: “This is about the land use principles in the corridor. It is not this body’s function to fight the casino fight you want it to fight.”
The matter was not settled.
On other fronts, Steinberg introduced the idea of formulating basic design guidelines for waterfront development in a public memo now, rather than waiting until the final master plan is complete.
Such a memo would be circulated to lawmakers, the mayor, developers and other interested parties. It would advocate for a fine-grained, Philadelphia-scale development and argue against mega-projects.
Steinberg also announced the hiring of progressive traffic engineering firm Glatting, Jackson of Orlando. Members of the firm already work with PennDot, and played a pivotal role in the three-day Plan Philly design workshop in March.
Finally, Steinberg announced outreach efforts to three of the five major mayor contenders in the upcoming primary. Businessman Tom Knox gave PennPraxis a personal audience, while Congressman Chaka Fattah and City Councilman Michael Nutter sent senior staff.
The Advisory Group Steering Committee meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 23.