By Thomas J. Walsh
Investors behind the Foxwoods Philadelphia Casino, clearly very comfortable with their new role as the designated “catalyst” for the revitalization of East Market Street, are anticipating an opening date of “late 2009,” despite the collapsed credit market that is putting many projects around the nation on indefinite hold.
That was the word from Brian Ford, chief executive of Washington Philadelphia Investors LP, the group that owns 70 percent of the Foxwoods Casino, now planned as part of a major, multi-phase renovation of the outdated Gallery mall. Ford spoke as part of a panel addressing the redevelopment of East Market Street during the monthly meeting of the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. held Tuesday afternoon at the Union League.
The CPDC is the business and advocacy wing of the Center City District, and both entities are headed by Executive Director Paul Levy, who was a panelist. Wayne Fisher, senior vice president of Grubb & Ellis Co., a real estate brokerage house, and John Connors, vice president of Brickstone Realty, also spoke.
“This is a unique opportunity … We are very excited,” Ford said. The partnership is in the process of “trying to put some substance to the ideas. [But] it has to be as a catalyst to an overall revitalization.”
To that end, Ford said Foxwoods would be a modern 3,000 slot machine gaming hall that takes its cues from the latest planning and design efforts in evidence along the Las Vegas Strip, where casinos extend out to the sidewalk and allow visitors a chance to take part in “a sort of outdoor party.”
“We think of this as an outreach casino,” Ford said, adding that the Market East commuter rail station beneath The Gallery would be emphasized, along with the Market Street subway and the 25 bus routes that rumble past its doors. “There is not another site in the country, I dare say the world, that has located a casino at the transportation hub of the region.”
At the same time, Ford played down Foxwoods’ overall footprint, saying that it would occupy 10 percent or less of The Gallery’s newly configured space in its initial phase, and at most 25 percent. He also likened the new use as not very different from converting old department stores – think Gimbels, Strawbridge’s and Wanamaker’s – into new ones, and indicated that designs would not be complicated. The initial plan is 300,000 square feet over three floors.
“We are essentially Nordstrom’s,” Ford said. “For us to consider moving from a design that everyone has worked on for years at the river to this, [it] speaks loudly to our enthusiasm for the site.”
Foxwoods officials had long insisted that no consideration would be made for an alternative site, and that the Delaware River waterfront on Columbus Boulevard was their only viable option since being awarded a slots license by the state.
In August, in the wake of a petition filed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that accused the Nutter administration of deliberately stalling the city’s permitting process for the waterfront location, management and owner representatives from Foxwoods met privately with Mayor Michael Nutter, Gov. Ed Rendell, State Sen. Vince Fumo and state representatives Dwight Evans and Bill Keller.
Not long after, the partnership conceded publicly that it was considering a re-location. Tuesday’s CPDC meeting attendees, speaking at a reception afterward, said that the general assumption regarding Foxwoods’ relatively sudden about-face was that Nutter and Rendell must have given the casino developers an offer they couldn’t refuse. Fumo said at the time that no state money was involved as an incentive in the closed-door session.
A drastically reduced capital investment might be incentive enough. At the new site, the Foxwoods investors no longer need worry much about parking or traffic issues, as Ford stressed the Market East transit hub as the main means of getting customers to the casino. Ford also plainly said there was no longer a need for other amenities – now commonplace for stand-alone casinos around the world – such as restaurants, entertainment venues or high-end retail.
That’s to say nothing of expensive new infrastructure, improvements to aging systems, providing 24/7 public access to the river, environmental impact studies or riparian rights.
That will save the group an enormous amount of upfront development costs, at a time when getting loans for such projects is iffy at best, even on the Vegas Strip, where a few planned mega-resorts have been delayed until further notice. The best part of the deal, of course, is that Foxwoods will still be able to tap the cash cow of legalized slot machines – and perhaps much sooner than the partners thought, given Ford’s remarks.
“Doing some renovation inside to facilitate a casino is not the hardest piece of construction,” Ford said of the new vision. “That’s a very practical development, taking space that has to be modified and putting a casino inside.”
The upside for the city is a profound change in the way The Gallery looks and feels, and the possibility of Foxwoods fulfilling its newly charged civic mission – bringing to life a curiously dead zone in the heart of Center City.
“I think that properly planned, properly positioned, it could really be spectacular,” said Connors.
Foxwoods may well come before the Philadelphia City Planning Commission at its next meeting on Oct. 21, but that is not yet confirmed. In the meantime, casino representatives may join Nutter, Councilman Frank DiCicco and State Rep. Michael O’Brien at a Chinatown community forum on Thursday evening (Oct. 9; 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.) to discuss the newly designated Gallery location. (The public meeting will be held at the Holy Redeemer School at 915 Vine Street.)
Terry Gillen, senior advisor to Nutter for economic development and his main casino strategist, told PlanPhilly last week that Foxwoods has preliminary design sketches that she would like readied for public viewing at the Chinatown meeting.
The forum will be a reminder to Foxwoods officials that they will still have to deal with groups like Casino-Free Philadelphia and neighborhood opposition from the residents of Chinatown, adjacent to the north of the Market East complex, and indeed there were representatives from both present on Tuesday. But in the new scenario, the developers will defend from a position of strength – the idea is to improve an existing, outdated eyesore, after all, not to build a new facility (though they could add height to The Gallery in later phases). They also now have the full backing of the Nutter administration.
Levy presented the Foxwoods plans at The Gallery in the context of Market Street’s walkability, from the Delaware to the Schuylkill. He said that a renovated Gallery that includes a well executed casino is a solid plan to attract new hotels, “destination retail” and the development of other vacant and underperforming sites (such as the long-bemoaned Girard Estate block, stretching from 11th to 12th on East Market’s south side).
“We need to connect to Chinatown,” Levy said, an area of the city that is active and vibrant around the clock but which currently is “hidden behind The Gallery.” A revitalized Gallery would draw Center City together instead of dividing it, he said, with an “animated and activated front” on what is now an inward-looking, multi-block obstacle.
It would spur further investment in the obvious gaps along East Market Street from 8th through 13th streets, Levy concluded, where not one of the many new outdoor cafés opened in Center City over the past decade can be found. Tying East Market together with West Market Street, with the help of a reconceived, Dilworth Plaza at its center (on City Hall’s outer, northern apron) would generate a “huge source of revenue” for the city, he said.
As for the casino itself at the center of this vision, Levy said it is up to all of us to keep the developers to their word, upholding strict standards of smart, sustainable urban development.
Meanwhile, representatives of the city’s other planned casino, SugarHouse, continue to say they have no plans to relocate from their spot on the Delaware River, further north in the Fishtown area, while Nutter administration officials continue to express their strong desire to see it moved.
But the Foxwoods saga is far from over. The partnership still owns the site on the Delaware where it intended to build for so long, and Ford said it could still move forward with construction there if things go awry at The Gallery.
“We want to see this work out,” he said, “But in the unfortunate circumstances where it would not, we would have to stay at the river.”
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