By Kellie Patrick Gates
Mayor Michael Nutter still wants SugarHouse to move off of the Delaware River – despite the willingness of casino officials to redesign their project to fit into the city’s long-range plan for the waterfront.
SugarHouse officials Wednesday told city officials they are going to revamp their design to better fit with the city’s vision for the waterfront. That vision, developed by PennPraxis after more than a year of community input, calls for extending the street grid to the waterfront, a stronger reliance on public transportation, walk-ability and human-scale buildings, among other things.
At Mayor Michael Nutter’s request, PennPraxis did a second, shorter study to look at whether casinos could fit into that vision. The verdict was no, but experts who participated suggested there were ways to design a casino that would fit better into the plan than the designs SugarHouse and the other proposed casino, Foxwoods, had developed.
Foxwoods last month announced it would investigate moving from its waterfront site to The Gallery at Market East. SugarHouse officials say they are sticking with their Delaware Avenue location.
But at Wednesday’s meeting, requested by SugarHouse’s main investor, Neil Bluhm, “They came in and said ‘we want to stay at our site, but we’re taking PennPraxis’ plan seriously,” said Andy Altman, Deputy Mayor for Commerce and Planning, in a phone interview Friday.
That meeting was talk only – no plans were presented, Altman said. “It was a brief meeting to let us know what they were looking at. They said they would get back to us” with revised plans, he said.
Altman said the city will certainly meet with SugarHouse and look at any new designs, but the city’s position has not changed: “There are better sites than waterfront sites to be used for a casino,” he said. “Waterfront sites are scarce sites. There are other sites that could better suit a casino.”
SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said the casino remains committed to its Delaware Avenue site.
There was no discussion of moving SugarHouse at Wednesday’s meeting. Wednesday’s meeting was not the first time the mayor and Bluhm spoke of a redesign, however.
They and Rep. Dwight Evans gathered in a hotel room in Denver during the Democratic National Convention in August. Bluhm is a big donor to the Democrats. Whitaker described it as an informal, unplanned discussion that happened because all the right people were in the same place at the same time.
Foxwoods’ potential move came about after officials from that casino met with Nutter, Governor Ed Rendell, and other elected officials. At the Sept. 10 press conference at which the potential switch to The Gallery site was announced, Rendell said he still wanted to have a similar meeting with SugarHouse, and that the meeting had not yet taken place because of scheduling difficulty.
Altman said Friday that the relocation meeting was “separate” from the discussions about a redesign, and that the city still anticipated the relocation meeting would take place.
Rep. Michael O’Brien, one of the waterfront legislators who has been involved with the effort to move the casinos off the river, said he still wants that meeting. O’Brien called the governor’s office Friday, but had not heard back by late afternoon.
“In my mind, I fully expect the governor to fulfill the commitment he made to me that I would be part of the resiting meeting,” he said.
O’Brien was also in Denver for the convention, but said he was not invited to the design discussion and knew nothing about it until he was questioned by a reporter. O’Brien does not think the Denver meeting should have happened. He said it feels like decisions are being made behind the scenes instead of through a legitimate process.
Rendell Spokesman Chuck Ardo said late in the work day Friday he was trying to get the answers to PlanPhilly’s question: Did the governor still want to meet with SugarHouse to discuss a different location, despite the new conversation about a redesign?
As recently as late September – long after the discussion at the convention – Ardo said the governor still wanted to talk about a new location for SugarHouse. Ardo said then the governor was waiting to reschedule it until after the State Supreme Court dealt with the city’s Sept. 5 petition asking the court to reconsider its decision in HSP Gaming v. The City of Philadelphia. (The court had earlier ruled that a submerged lands license issued to SugarHouse during the Street administration, then revoked during the Nutter administration, still stands. SugarHouse needs the permit to build as planned on its current site.)
The pending decision “helps explain why there is a lack of urgency – a piece of information is missing,” Ardo said on Sept. 23. But the meeting is mostly dependent on scheduling. “People are busy. There’s an election coming up so the Governor is less available – there are all sorts of things to prevent people from getting together,” he said.
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