SugarHouse gets all clear from Army Corps

Aug. 29
By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says SugarHouse has done all the archaeological work necessary prior to receiving the federal permit it needs to build its casino project as planned.

“We now conclude that the applicant has made a reasonable and good faith effort to identify historic properties at the SugarHouse site,” the Corps wrote in a letter it sent this week to the state agency which oversees historic preservation, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

That doesn’t mean the archaeology is finished, said Corps Spokesman Khaalid Walls. In the PHMC letter, the Corps recommends that the methods for recovering any remaining artifacts be outlined in a memorandum of agreement – an agreement that would be attached to the permit, Walls said.

SugarHouse agrees with the Corps that the remaining archaeology can be done post-permit via a memorandum of agreement. “There are still significant recovery efforts that are required,” said SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker in an email. This would include digging up artifacts that remain in wells and privies and looking beneath Penn Street for evidence of a British Revolutionary War Fort.

“We are happy we are moving forward,” said Whitaker. “We have followed all rules, we continue to work with the Army Corps and PHMC, and we have always anticipated that we would move through the process and in the end receive a permit.”

The latest development is a blow for those who don’t want the casino built on its chosen site. If the PHMC and its federal counterpart, the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, give the OK, work will begin on the memorandum, Walls said. That’s the last step remaining before the Corps would decide on the permit, which is one of the few hurdles remaining before SugarHouse could start construction.  Last week, the state Supreme Court ruled that a license the city issued allowing the casino to build on state-owned riparian land is still valid, despite the Nutter administration’s attempt to revoke it. (State lawmakers have promised a federal court challenge to that decision, however.)

The move toward a memorandum of agreement is also a huge disappointment to some of the local historians, neighborhood activists and archaeologists who have been advising the Corps as consulting parties.

“The process at this point is little more than a farce,” said Douglas Mooney, a consulting party and president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum. “The consulting parties have not in any way been taken into account, really.”

In short, some of the consulting parties, including Mooney and historian/preservationist Torben Jenk, say all artifacts should be recovered prior to the issuance of a permit. A memorandum of agreement is rightly used to outline what should be done with any artifacts that are unexpectedly found during construction, Mooney said. It should not be  used to cover the excavation of sites that are believed to contain artifacts.  Jenk has said repeatedly that SugarHouse has been using inaccurate maps to decide where to dig. The casino stands behind its maps. 

Mooney, Jenk and other consulting parties  have been calling for a meeting with the Corps, SugarHouse and others involved in this process in order to discuss their concerns. The Corps has said that all of the information the consulting parties provided has been reviewed, and that there was no need for a physical meeting.

Mooney points to a section of the Corps letter to the PHMC that really burns him. The letter refers to a July 21 meeting in which SugarHouse, its archaeological consultant, the PHMC and the Army Corps reviewed the consulting party comments “point by point.”

The consulting parties should have been at that meeting, Mooney said.

The archaeology was part of a historic review required by federal law before the Corps can issue a permit. The dig has turned up a significant amount of Native American artifacts, as well as remnants of early Philadelphia neighborhood life.

But there has been much controversy about what hasn’t yet been found: Physical evidence of the British Fort, remnants of Batchelor’s Hall – a social club where John Bartram was gardener, or items left behind from the earliest days of Philadelphia’s industrial past, including old ship-building facilities.

Jenk and others have criticized SugarHouse archaeologist A.D. Marble’s work from the beginning. Marble’s early reports made no mention of the fort or Batchelor’s Hall, and said that Native American artifacts were unlikely to be found.  That’s when Jenk, working with a group of historians at The Kensington History Project, began to barrage SugarHouse, Marble and the Corps with maps and other documentation. 

That, too, has been controversial, because while all of the consulting parties involved in this push have an interest in history and/or archaeology, some also want the casino to be built elsewhere.

SugarHouse now agrees that the fort was located on the property. Whitaker has said any artifacts were most likely destroyed by the construction and destruction of the former sugar refinery. However, she said, SugarHouse will look for remains of the Fort beneath Penn Street – a step it cannot take until the city turns off the utilities that run beneath the street. Then, the complete excavation of the site where Native American artifacts have been found, will be done through the MOA, she said.

The consulting parties called for an independent party to review Marble’s work. On the advice of the Historic Council for Historic Preservation, a Corps archaeologist from Texas was asked to review the case. He finished the review, Corps spokesman Walls said, and drafted most of the letter that went to the PHMC.

For Jenk, his involvement has not been enough.  He wants an independent expert to read all of the evidence.

Jenk has sent a letter to the Corps, the ACHP and PHMC, and all other involved parties outlining his concerns. He is also hoping to convince local federal representatives to get involved.

Mooney said the Archaeological Forum is also contemplating a response, but it might also decide to focus its efforts on the memorandum of agreement.

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