By Matt Blanchard
For some it was a victory, to others a defeat, but to all sides it came as a shock: Despite a widespread assumption that the Planning Commission would approve Foxwoods’ $560 million plan for a casino in South Philadelphia, the commission opted instead to delay a decision for at least a month.
Foxwoods had assumed the approval was in the bag: “We certainly expected we’d have an approval,” said casino attorney Jeffrey Rotwitt.
And though they hated it, Foxwoods opponents also assumed it was done deal: “It seems as though the planning commission is going to vote in favor of it,” city councilman Frank DiCicco had said before the meeting.
Yet after four hours of testimony inside the Free Library’s auditorium – and numerous outbursts of shouting and slogan-chanting from the audience – the commission voted to table the matter, claiming they simply didn’t have enough information to make the call.
“There were other questions we wanted to look into,” explained commission member Gloria Levin.
Foxwoods, best known for their mega-casino in Connecticut, proposes a 3.7 million-square-foot facility along the river at Columbus Boulevard between Reed and Tasker Streets. The first phase includes 3,000 slot machines. Later phases will add shops, restaurants, entertainment
venues, a parking garage, a public riverfront walkway and possibly two condominium or hotel towers.
The design of the casino, by Ewing Cole architects, is dominated by a 10-story parking garage along Delaware Avenue and did not inspire much support from the audience. Promises to soften a giant blank wall on the building’s north side with climbing vines drew jeers from the audience.
When images of a riverside boardwalk were shown, someone shouted “Where’s the suicide pier?” And while the first phase of the project includes a landscaped riverfront park, the second phase obliterates that park to make way for casino buildings.
Even so, the staff of the planning commission recommended that the board approve the casino’s zoning and plan of development, with certain provisos. Such recommendations carry great weight with the board.
Foxwoods got a second piece of good news when word reached the meeting by Blackberry that a rival casino, RiverWalk, had lost its bid in the State Supreme Court to overturn the casino’s license.
But Foxwoods faced tough questions on four issues: riparian rights, traffic, a development agreement with the city, and the fate of legislation that would keep casinos at least 1,500 feet from homes and places of worship. The commission will examine each issue in depth before making its decision.
The complex issue of riparian rights seemed to provide a pivotal moment for the board. Under state law, land between the shoreline and the end of existing piers is called “riparian land.” It belongs to the commonwealth and cannot be developed without approval by the state legislature.
A little more than 9 acres of Foxwoods’ 30-acre site is riparian land.
But when Foxwoods’ Rotwitt claimed the project “makes no use of riparian lands” and doesn’t require state approval, a staff member from state rep. Mike O’Brien’s office rose to angrily dispute the claim.
“You are trying to build on riparian lands, land that belongs to the state,” said O’Brien chief of staff Mary Isaacson. “And until you meet with your co-owners and come to some agreement, whether you like it or not, you’re not going to be building on that land.”
Isaacson declared that O’Brien and fellow state Rep. Bill Keller would seek a court order to bar Foxwoods from commencing construction before the riparian issue is settled.
Commission members also seemed disturbed by the apparent absence of independent traffic studies to gauge Foxwood’s impact. The casino’s traffic engineer, Jeff Green of Orth-Rogers, presented the board with a raft of signaling and lane improvements that he said would improve peak hour traffic on Fridays by 36 percent over current conditions.
Casino opponents chipped away at that certainty with their own traffic engineer, and seemed to strike home with former city council candidate Matt Ruben lambasting the commission for reviewing a proposal whose only traffic study was paid for by the developer.
“To know [an independent] study has not been completed and to vote to approve it anyway constitutes the most basic and most egregious dereliction of duty for a planning commission,” Ruben thundered.
A Development Agreement in Progress
The third issue behind the commission’s delay was timing: The city has not yet completed negotiations for a legally-binding development agreement with Foxwoods Casino. That agreement is said to cover transportation, local jobs, public safety, architectural design, public access to the river and even flooding concerns. Since it is a work in progress, City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. offered few specifics. Diaz said he expected the two sides to finalize the agreement “in the next 24 hours.”
One aspect of the agreement was described: The casino has offered to fund a special services district to the tune of $1 million per year. According to Foxwoods’ Rotwitt, the district would be entirely managed by the community, and could accomplish community goals such as traffic safety or programs for seniors. The other city casino, Sugarhouse, has made an identical offer to the residents of Fishtown.
The final reason stated for the commission’s delay is confusion about legislative efforts to enact a 1500-foot buffer between the casinos and residential areas, schools or churches.
Such a buffer would force both casinos off their current sites, probably to remote reaches of the city. Because it countermands state law, a citywide referendum on the buffer concept was tossed off the May primary ballot.
Even so, three buffer bills are pending:
Frank DiCicco has introduced legislation in City Council, though he admits it’s chiefly a delaying tactic.
State Rep. Babette Josephs recently introduced HB 1477, a buffer bill whose application would effective ban casinos from the city of Philadelphia.
And most bizarrely, State Sen. Vince Fumo, the architect of the state’s gaming laws, last week introduced two separate 1500-foot buffer bills in the senate, apparently as the fulfillment of promises to his anti-casino constituents. Fumo immediately declared both bills hopeless, leaving many to scratch their heads: “I believe this legislation has virtually no chance of passing either the House or Senate,” he said.
Perhaps understandably, city planning commissioners are confused.
So in the end, it was Commissioner David Adelman who moved to table the discussion until answers could be procured.
“This is too important to rush through a bunch of questions right now,” Adelman said to cheers mixed with a few boos.
Afterwards, Foxwoods’ Jeffrey Rotwitt told reporters the commission should already have all the information they need. He argued that the real reason the commission tabled the discussion was the shear “vocality” of the angry, largely anti-casino crowd.
Further, Rotwitt noted that a month-long delay would have zero impact on the casino’s plan. Because City Council is in recess until September anyway, the planning commission’s delay until August was immaterial.
“We are fully confident that when they convene in August , they’ll approve it and pass it on to City Council.”
The other proposed casino, Sugarhouse, was reviewed on May 22, also inside the Central Library, and won the commission’s approval. The commission gave only 24 hours notice of that meeting. This time, they gave nearly two weeks.
The Planning Commission and Foxwoods are also making large format drawings that are part of this plan available for public viewing. These drawings are technical in nature, and contain site layout information, engineering, zoning, and other technical data.
These drawings will not be posted on the Planning Commission website. They will be available for viewing at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission during regular business hours, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.