Casino designs do not work

Aug. 11

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly
 
     Philadelphia’s future waterfront would be better off if the two planned casinos were built elsewhere, a PennPraxis report ordered up by the mayor and released this morning states.
     But if SugarHouse and Foxwoods are built along the Delaware River, the report outlines changes to their designs that would make them a better fit.
     These include:
     • Dividing the currently proposed wide, rectangular buildings into narrower, taller structures – for Foxwoods, this would translate into two smaller, stacked gaming floors.
     • Reducing the amount of parking spaces by half and placing more emphasis on mass transit and pedestrian traffic.
     • Extending streets and green space through the casino parcels to provide more physical and visual access to the river.
     • And moving up the casinos’ timeline for the building of non-gaming uses so that condominiums, restaurants, shops, and other street-level businesses open early on.
     PennPraxis Executive Director Harris Steinberg emphasized in an interview this morning that while these steps would yield improvement, they are not offered as a compromise.
    “It pushes the envelope, it significantly alters their current site plans, but in the end, we conclude it does not go far enough to make them fully compatible,” he said.
     Despite alterations to the current plans,  the buildings would still be too big, with far too much space dedicated to parking cars, he said – even cutting the number of parking spaces by half would still leave each casino with a garage 1.5 times the size of the largest one in Center City.
     If the casinos were to be built with the modified designs and most or all of the parking were moved to remote sites away from the waterfront, that would be a good start toward making the casinos compatible with the vision, he said.
     The report was based on a three-day workshop with a team of experts from around the country. Mayor Michael Nutter asked Praxis – the practical arm of Penn’s School of Design – to explore whether the proposed casinos could be built in a way that would mesh well with the Central Delaware Vision, a plan for extending the city’s urban grid and creating public access to the waterfront that Praxis gleaned from a long series of public meetings and workshops.
     (Although a letter sent from the mayor’s office to several state political leaders seemed to indicate that Praxis was also charged with exploring alternative sites for the casinos, that was not part of the assignment. The city’s planning department is looking into that.)
     Terry Gillen, senior advisor to Mayor Nutter on economic development and his casino point person, said that the report provides specific reasons why the casinos don’t work at their proposed waterfront locations, and that’s exactly what the mayor needed.
    “He needed explanations for why the site isn’t good, so that the public, and the folks across the state understand there are some legitimate problems with the sites,” Gillen said.
    Gillen said the “public” means “citizens and elected officials in Pennsylvania who may be concerned that we’re not moving as quickly as they thought we would. We want them to understand why.” It’s not that the city is anti-casino, but that the sites are problematic, she said. “My sense is when they understand we have legitimate issues, that we didn’t have the same zoning rights that many of them (other cities chosen for casinos) had, they are sympathetic.”
    Both casinos have legal matters pending before the Supreme Court in which they argue, essentially, that the administration is intentionally slowing down the process to prevent the casinos from being built in their current locations.
    Representatives from SugarHouse and Foxwoods have repeatedly said they are not interested in changing locations.
    From the moment the mayor asked Praxis to do the analysis, the casinos and their supporters have looked on with skepticism. When both the mayor and Steinberg publicly said that it would be better if the casinos were built elsewhere, the casino interests asked, how could the study possibly be unbiased?
    Similar sentiments were expressed by some Friday.
    Steinberg said that when he previously said the casinos wouldn’t fit on the waterfront, he was referring to their current proposed designs. And it wasn’t just him, but a team of experts from across the country – including an expert in casino design – who determined that there was no way to redesign them so they would fit in completely with the civic vision.
     Foxwoods officials took the weekend to review the document. Eary this afternoon, Spokeswoman Maureen Garrity issued a short, written statement, calling the document unsurprisingly biased.
     “The conclusions reached by Penn Praxis only confirm that Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia was correct in our suspicion that the outcome was predetermined,” the statement said.
     “This point was driven home when comments from Penn Praxis’ experts support our assertions that traffic is a manageable issue reported in the media were nowhere to be found in the report.”
     Garrity said the traffic issues comment relates to a July 30th entry in a Daily News blog called www.phillyclout.com in which one of the experts Praxis gathered for the pre-report brainstorming session said that the traffic the casino would bring was “manageable” and no different from a shopping mall.
     The Monday statement continued, “While Penn Praxis spent three days reviewing and revising our plans, Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia has spent nearly three years and more than $100 million developing and designing a world-class entertainment facility that will positively transform South Columbus Boulevard, making it more pedestrian-friendly, improving traffic flow and providing riverfront access to the community.”
     SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker also said Friday she could not provide comments on the details of the report until SugarHouse’s team analyzed it. Monday, she said the casino officials decided not to comment on the report.

     But on Friday, Whitaker had some overall comments.
     On resiting: “We feel we have the best location and we feel resiting is not possible,” she said.
     On a redesign: “I want to disavow people of the notion that our design is bad. That’s not the right assumption. We have been working on our design for two years, and it takes a lot more consideration than what it looks like. That’s very important to us, but there were a lot of other factors we needed to consider. The intention of the Gaming Act is that is has to be large enough to generate revenue. It has to be functional, there has to be appropriate access.”
     The only specific recommendation of the plan that Whitaker was willing to discuss was the parking issue. It would be great if people took public transportation, she said, but it is likely that once the lot was full, they would park in the neighborhood.
    That is the greatest fear of Maggie O’Brien, a long-time resident of Fishtown and co-founder of the pro-casino group Fishtown Action, aka, FACT.
    O’Brien couldn’t believe it when told that the study suggested that even cutting the parking in half would not be enough to make SugarHouse casino fit in with the neighborhood.
    A reduction in parking or a switch to remote parking wouldn’t get casino customers to walk, take public transportation, ride their bikes or use a shuttle service, she said. “People are going to drive their cars down there, and if the lot is full, they are going to park on the damn street, which is exactly what we don’t want them to do,” she said. “The study doesn’t look at reality.”
     On the other side of the public opinion equation, CasinoFree Philadelphia co-founder Daniel Hunter said the conclusions of the report were inevitable. “What PennPraxis announced today was obvious to the rest of us for quite awhile – casinos don’t fit into the civic vision for the waterfront,” he said.
    O’Brien didn’t see the point of redesigning SugarHouse because she likes the current design – she thinks it would make for a beautiful building, and she imagines herself sitting with a mixed drink on the riverside deck one day.
    Hunter doesn’t see the point, either. No change in form would make a casino tolerable, he said, because he takes issue with the casino’s function.
    While the study provides details and renderings of what both casinos would look like if the ideas generated by the study group were put in place, it is far from enough to build on. The changes would require “a complete redesign” he said.
    That doesn’t come cheap.
    “Architects, engineers, all those people come back to the table,” Whitaker said.
    When asked if the city might offer money to cover the cost of a redesign, Gillen said she couldn’t go there yet. “I don’t want to get into the detail of next steps or negotiations about what needs to happen,” she said. “Right now, the city wants a little bit of time – not much – to look at the report and to consider our options.” Gillen said this would happen within weeks.  “I hope this will lead to a conversation with the casinos about design and the site issue,” she said.
     A meeting during which Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Vince Fumo, Rep. Dwight Evans, Mayor Nutter and the casino operators are to discuss the relocation option is expected to soon take place.
    Officials from both casinos have pledged to attend. But the casino operators have been frustrated by the effort to get them to move. Spokeswomen for both SugarHouse and Foxwoods have said that the casinos did not make the rules, they have only followed the procedure set up by the state, which established the number of slot machines and approved the locations.
     Steinberg said his concern is not about the function of the casinos, but their current form, and that the lessons learned from the workshop could be applied to any large building.
    He agreed that some of the design elements were out of the casinos’ control, for example, the state-mandated number of slots and American casino industry standards hamper Foxwoods and SugarHouse, he said. And that’s part of why they can’t be made to fit properly with the waterfront vision.
   A casino that offered smaller numbers of stations for more varied types of gambling – more of the European model – could actually work within the framework of the Central Delaware vision, he said.
   
 
    Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

 

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