Washington Square West forum
By Kellie Patrick Gates
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Tuesday granted Foxwoods Casino’s request that a special master be appointed to monitor the dealings between the casino interest and the City of Philadelphia.
That decision, posted late in the business day, added more unanswered questions to the heap that residents, city and state elected officials, planners, and even casino execs have in front of them about Foxwoods’ potential move from the Delaware riverfront to The Gallery at Market East.
The Court’s decision was issued in response to a request filed by Foxwoods in June – well before The Gallery site was under consideration. The decision does not specify a site. Does that mean the special master – Joseph F. McCloskey, senior judge of the Commonwealth Court – would oversee issues related to either location?
When asked after an informational meeting hosted by the Washington Square West Civic Association, Foxwoods President James L. Dougherty said he didn’t yet know. Dougherty also said he didn’t know whether the High Court ruling would impact his company’s willingness to consider the move to The Gallery – a site that city and state elected officials say they prefer to the waterfront. “It’s just too new,” Dougherty said.
Terry Gillen, senior advisor to the mayor for economic development and his casino point person, and Andy Altman, deputy mayor of planning, said the city is also trying to figure out the implications of the court’s latest decision.
Mary Isaacson, spokeswoman for State Rep. Michael O’Brien – one of the waterfront legislators who fought against the Delaware River sites of both of Philadelphia’s proposed casinos – said by her reading, Foxwoods will have a Special Master wherever it is licensed to operate. Right now, that means Columbus Boulevard. But if the project moves forward at The Gallery, the casino will ask the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to change its license.
Later this week, City Councilman Frank DiCicco plans to introduce legislation that would change the zoning classification of The Gallery to allow a casino to operate there.
The crowd at last week’s Chinatown meeting about Foxwoods’ proposed move from the waterfront to Market East urged DiCicco to hold off, as did some at Tuesday nights meeting in Washington Square West.
DiCicco told both groups that the introduction of the two bills (the first would create a CED classification that fits The Gallery site and the second would change The Gallery’s zoning to that classification) will not mean he’s convinced that The Gallery is the right spot for Foxwoods to operate.
DiCicco has been saying that if he doesn’t submit the legislation, the State Supreme Court might take decision-making power away from City Council, as it did in the SugarHouse case. The Court, agreeing with SugarHouse that the city and council were stalling, both changed the zoning of SugarHouse’s property to a Commercial Entertainment District and decreed that the casino’s development plan did not need Council’s approval.
Tuesday night, he wondered aloud how much effect the latest Court decision would have. “The game may have changed as of 5 o’clock this afternoon,” he said.
While similar in format to last week’s session in Chinatown, the meeting was very different in tone. There were no chants. There was no yelling. And while the majority of people spoke against a casino at Market East, some supporters spoke, too.
“I think the gambling industry is great,” said Mel Heifetz, a Pier 5 resident who owns apartments and a hotel in Wash West. “It will bring people, it will bring vitality, it will bring business.”
Other supporters said they thought Foxwoods could be the spark needed to revitalize the Market East corridor. One offered conditional support, so long as the casino hired local people and bought from local businesses – which Dougherty said it would.
The opponents shared many of the concerns expressed by the residents and business people of Chinatown. They worry the casino will increase crime and addiction, and the costs of fighting those problems will outweigh the benefits the casino brings. They note that young people hang out at The Gallery, and worry what effect a casino would have on them. They say the city and state officials should push the casinos to locate in places farther from neighborhoods.
Resident and business owner Bob Hornsby, holding his infant daughter, said he has experienced a lot in his years in Washington West – including raw sewage in his kitchen sink and murders happening near his home. “Never have I felt during that time that there was something going on where I did not feel like I wanted to be in this community and raise a family in this community until I heard of the prospect of a casino within a few blocks of my house.”
Hornsby said he does not believe the mayor and elected officials have the power to do whatever they chose regarding casinos, but he does think they could slow things down.
Casino-Free Philadelphia today urged its members to bombard DiCicco and Mayor Michael Nutter with emails asking them to do just that, and opposing the introduction of the legislation that DiCicco plans to submit. The leaders sent a letter to the two men, arguing that DiCicco’s rationale for introducing the legislation now was faulty. And they asked their members who live in Wash West to attend tonight’s meeting and make their voices heard.
“The downtown communities deserve more time,” the CasinoFree email states. “There are currently no public plans for Foxwoods at Market Street, elected officials have not seen them … yet they are still willing to introduce the CED? There are no impact studies, nor has there been any chance for public input. This is not what transparency and good government look like.”
DiCicco spokesman Brian Abernathy said earlier Tuesday that the introduction of legislation “doesn’t mean we’re supporting a proposal. It’s an effort to be able to continue the discussion.”
That process is transparent, he said, and the scheduled public meetings show that. (Read memo from Abernathy here)
Casino-Free attorney Paul Boni said DiCicco’s Supreme Court reasoning is “a red herring” because the conditions that the Court used to act in the SugarHouse case do not exist for Foxwoods at The Gallery site.
Boni said that High Court Justices ruled as they did in part because SugarHouse had a state gaming license to operate a casino at the address of its Delaware Avenue site and because a city CED that would allow the casino to operate there was already in existence. (The zoning classification had been created, but not applied to the SugarHouse site.)
“The Supreme Court had it on a silver platter last year because the existing CED had been tailor made for these (waterfront) projects, it met them to a T,” Boni said. “It would not be so easy this time to do that.”
Foxwoods now has no license to operate a casino at The Gallery – casino officials would have to re-appear before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to get that change approved.
The existing CED classification does not mesh with The Gallery site, which is why DiCicco plans to propose an amended version. The new version, which as of last week was still being refined, has not been made public, but Abernathy has said it will require fewer parking spaces and no setback from the street. Boni said that if the State Supreme Court were to impose the existing CED, the issue would still be far from over because Foxwoods would need a variance to operate under the different conditions at The Gallery site.
Abernathy agrees that the conditions are different, but said that does not mean the Supreme Court would not grant Foxwoods its Gallery zoning.
“The Supreme Court has pretty much acted however the hell it’s wanted two over the past two years. These guys have gotten creative,” Abernathy said.
Besides, Abernathy said, there are reasons other than the Supreme Court to submit the legislation now.
“If we do not act on Foxwoods at The Gallery in a very quick and forthright manner, I am convinced that Foxwoods will have a shovel in the ground at Delaware and Reed (their original proposed riverfront location) in the next six months,” he said.
And, Abernathy said, while DiCicco is not convinced The Gallery is the right spot, he’s also not convinced it’s the wrong spot, either. And he doesn’t want to be stuck with a waterfront casino if in fact The Gallery could have worked out for the city.
If the project is done right, it could serve as a catalyst for growth along the Market East corridor, Abernathy said. “We’re not convinced that it does, but we need to start the process to have these conversations, to engage not just the developer, but our constituents, the City Planning Department” and others.
“Casino-Free says we shouldn’t introduce legislation, we shouldn’t talk at all – but look at their goal – it is to make sure casinos are never built within the City of Phialdelphia,” he said. “Councilman DiCicco’s goal is to make sure the casinos built in the city of Philadelphia are built responsibly.”
Abernathy said no casinos is not an option, because the state legislature and the State Supreme Court says Philadelphia will have two. Anti-casino activists are not ready to concede that point, however.
And there is no reason to rush the process now, Boni said, but good reasons to slow down.
Creating a Gallery-tailored CED might be “building Foxwoods’ case to ask the Supreme Court to step in,” he said.
Both the existing, waterfront CED and the amended version state that once an applicant submits a Plan of Development, City Council must act on it within 45 days or it will be automatically approved.
“We’re being told it (the submission of legislation) is no big deal, don’t worry, it’s just the beginning of the process and there is plenty of time to air things out,” Boni said. But the 45-day provision “makes it self executing. Those are heavy-duty things to have.”
Boni said DiCicco should slow down and create a CED after receiving much more public input.
“We could require that they close down at midnight,” he said. “We could make gambling a conditional use, so that they would have to go to the Zoning Board” before a casino could operate.” Boni also suggested that DiCicco could take out the stipulation that Council must act on any development plan within 45 days.
“I’m opposed to anything moving forward without the benefit of a long period of public airing,” he said. “We don’t know what this is, and it is unreasonable to start proposing any legislation before the public knows what it’s all about.”
Abernathy said the process is moving slowly. Foxwoods has no development plan, and it has told the city it is nine to 10 weeks away from a preliminary one.
“If one were submitted within the next 30 days, I guarantee we would reject it, because we’re not at that point yet. We don’t have enough information,” he said.
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