By Kellie Patrick Gates
City officials expect to soon receive plans detailing what Foxwoods Casino would look like if it moves to The Gallery at Market East.
“I think we’ll see something by the end of next week,” Terry Gillen, senior adviser to Mayor Michael Nutter for economic development, said Thursday morning. Gillen was also clearly pleased with a letter the city received last week from the Design Advocacy Group in support of relocation to the Gallery.
DAG is an organization of architects, planners, preservationists, builders, and others whose mission is to promote design excellence in the region. “A big design group has weighed in that this is a good move. We’re happy about that,” Gillen said.
DAG’s letter, which was approved by the roughly 20-member steering committee and dated five days after Foxwoods announced it was considering The Gallery – states that the location is advantageous because it is very well served by public transportation and is close to existing hotels, shops and restaurants. DAG also wrote that both the site and the casino design must be thoroughly reviewed in an open process.
“We really do welcome this. This is a remarkable option for the city,” said DAG vice chairman David Brownlee in a phone interview this afternoon.
But he and fellow vice chairmen George L. Claflen Jr., who was also part of the phone call, said while their organization has endorsed the site, much hinges on the design. DAG has invited Foxwoods’ developers to a design review. They haven’t heard back.
“We are expecting to have preliminary sketches to show the city for discussion purposes only in the next few days,” Foxwood spokeswoman Maureen Garrity said in an email. Foxwoods is “at least a few weeks” away from unveiling more detailed renderings, she said.
The developments are the latest in a series of events that began in July when a contingent of state legislators said they had joined forces to get both casinos to move. The next day, Gov. Ed Rendell joined the cause – he said there had been a change in political climate in the city, and the casinos would go up faster if they changed locations. Mayor Michael Nutter, the governor and some state legislators announced in late August that Foxwoods was considering alternative locations. The group announced The Gallery site at a Sept. 10 press conference.
Since that announcement, city representatives and Councilman Frank DiCicco’s office have worked on planning and zoning issues related to the move. They have also been meeting with neighborhood organizations that represent residents near the proposed new site, including Chinatown and Washington Square West.
Gillen said the various community groups are “in different stages” of trying to figure out what Foxwoods at The Gallery would mean to them. “The groups want to know that they can weigh in, and that this is not a done deal,” Gillen said.
It’s not a done deal, she said. “We’re very much in the early stages of figuring this out.”
Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, remains as frustrated and disappointed as she was the day of the public announcement – which was also the day that Gym found out a casino might be moving to her neighborhood.
Of course she wants to see the plans, she said, but no matter what the casino they depict looks like, Gym said AAU won’t give its support unless the process comes to a halt while studies are done to determine the impact a casino would have on the neighborhood and the city.
“They were willing to do it for the waterfront,” she said, referring to The Central Delaware Plan, which was developed by PennPraxis after more than a year of community and expert input. “It’s hard to imagine they would settle for less for the very heart of Philadelphia.”
Gym said she knows the city will do some studies, and has heard that a social impact study has begun, but her organization has not been contacted regarding it. Asian Americans United is concerned about gambling addiction – Gym said studies have shown that Asian Americans are more prone to become addicted than other ethnic groups.
The city is not doing a social impact study, Gillen said, but the Department of Behavioral Health is researching the question of gaming addiction in various ethnic groups. “The mayor asked them to think about what kind of program we might need to put in place, and do we have to pay particular attention to certain ethnic groups because of a move to the Gallery,” Gillen said.
The studies on Asians and gambling addiction that the department has seen show mixed conclusions, Gillen said – some say there is a correlation, others do not.
The Department of Behavioral Health also convened a committee on Asian American health issues – including behavioral health issues – two years ago. The committee still exists, Gillen said, and “a lot of good work is in place that we can build on.”
Gym does not believe Gillen’s statement that The Gallery location isn’t a done deal. She would start to believe it, she said, if the city removed gaming revenue from its 2010 budget.
The city did move the casino money back a year, from 2009 to 2010, Gillen said. That’s where it will stay. “People should understand it’s not a done deal in Chinatown, but it is a done deal in Philadelphia,” she said.
Gillen said the pressure from Harrisburg has been “enormous.” During the budget process, legislators from other states were threatening to withhold Philadelphia’s share of casino revenue, since it is being generated from casinos operating in other places, she said. The mayor worked “channels in Harrisburg” hard to keep funding, she said, but that likely won’t happen again.
Gym thinks the new location was found in a completely backwards way. Foxwoods should not have been leading the process, she said. The city should have taken the lead and determined where the best site was, and presented that site to the casino.
Foxwoods got to take the lead, Gillen said, “because Foxwoods has a legal right to build on the waterfront. They were given that right by the Supreme Court over our objections.”
The elected officials involved in the resiting have all said that there is nothing they can do to force Foxwoods or SugarHouse from the sites where the Gaming Control Board gave them licenses to operate, so any move would have to be voluntary.
Foxwoods “came back and offered up a site that we think makes a lot of sense,” Gillen said. “If we conclude that site doesn’t work, I think Foxwoods goes back to the waterfront. They’re not shopping around for sites.”
If Foxwoods goes back to their waterfront site, the city will go back to its previous position that they’ve got to meet traffic and other requirements before Philadelphia issues a zoning or building permit, Gillen said.
But Foxwoods has already taken the city to the State Supreme Court over this issue. They have filed a request asking the Court to appoint a Special Master, saying that the city is once again dragging its feet in violation of an earlier court order.
The Court hasn’t rendered a decision yet, but Gillen doesn’t think much of the city’s chances, noting that the city has lost 12 casino-related court decisions already.
DAG’s Brownlee, an expert in architectural history and historic preservation, and Claflen, principal of Claflen Associates, Architects & Planners, can’t wait to see Foxwoods’ designs.
They wonder whether the casino will take up existing retail space or only rise above The Gallery – its foundations were built to handle more floors. They wonder which street the main entrance would be on, and whether the plan will call for one, large gambling floor or multiple floors, stacked on top of each other. And they hope that there’s not a big parking garage, since one of the big reasons DAG likes this site is that it’s a public transit hub with existing garages and hotels close by.
If Foxwoods is built at The Gallery, the neighborhoods which feel that impact “should not be shy in asking for mitigation funds and other benefits,” Claflen said.
Some mitigation could have broad benefits that might do more than make up for casino issues, Claflen said. For example, he said, many have talked about the expensive prospect of sinking I-95, but 676 is already sunken. In some places, including Logan Square, it’s covered. And it could be covered in Chinatown, he said.
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