DiCicco and aide Brian Abernathy confer with Cecilia Yep after introduction of CED.
By Kellie Patrick Gates
Philadelphia City Councilman Frank DiCicco Thursday introduced legislation that would allow a casino to operate at The Gallery at Market East – the site Foxwoods is considering.
As is usual practice when legislation is introduced, there was no public comment period. But community activists from Chinatown, Society Hill and other neighborhoods who had urged DiCicco to hold off on the Commercial Entertainment District proposal and CED zoning overlay attended the morning session.
Among them was Cecilia Yep, a Chinatown resident and a founder of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. She leaned over the rail that divides Council from the audience to talk to DiCicco. Yep said DiCicco assured her there would be plenty of opportunity for public input, as this was the start of the process. She’ll be at the public hearings, she said, but the Councilman did not convince her that introducing the legislation was the right step.
“It’s kind of like we’re being railroaded and we can’t do anything about it,” she said. “We got rid of the stadium, and now we’ve got a casino.”
Mayor Michael Nutter had DiCicco’s back at a joint press conference the two held in the hallway outside the mayor’s office following the Council meeting. Mostly, they reiterated the points DiCicco has tried to make to the communities near The Gallery ever since he announced last week that he would be submitting this legislation: The introduction of the legislation does not rush the casino project, it begins a process that will allow Council and the City Planning Commission to analyze it and take public input. The public will have many opportunities to comment. And doing nothing is not an option, because when the casinos have gone to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court saying that the city has stalled, the court has made decisions for Council.
DiCicco said submitting the legislation was not an endorsement of the site, but “an act of good faith” that city leaders had to give to Foxwoods before the casino would be willing to spend time and money on plans for a new location off the Delaware Riverfront.
DiCicco, Nutter and other local and state officials have long fought to get both Foxwoods and the city’s other proposed casino, SugarHouse, to move off of the waterfront. They’ve used legislation, litigation, and a lot of talking. SugarHouse remains unwilling to budge from its Delaware Avenue site, although it has talked of redesigning its plan to better fit in with the city’s long-term vision of the waterfront. But last month, Foxwoods investors and the mayor, Governor Ed Rendell and other elected officials announced that Foxwoods would consider The Gallery.
“How can we in good faith ask them to look for a new site and then not give them any signal that we’re even willing to talk to them about it?” DiCicco asked.
But the neighborhood activists who oppose the casino are frustrated with DiCicco for not insisting on having the social impact study, traffic study, detailed drawings and other elements of the plan prior to submitting the CED legislation.
City leaders and the public should decide whether The Gallery is the right site before adopting the CED, said Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United. “Our feeling is that this is just way too premature.”
Right now, Gym said, city officials are in a position of power. By expressing a willingness to move “They’ve blinked,” she said of Foxwoods. “They need to move. They know it and we know it. So take the time and pick the best site.”
Foxwoods’ license, issued by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, lists its waterfront site. The casino would have to reappear before the Board to request a change to The Gallery. This is one reason why Gym believes Council should not create a CED at The Gallery. “It would be naïve to think that the city rezoning to Commercial Entertainment District wouldn’t give Foxwoods the maximum leverage to get a license change,” she said.
The mayor said at Thursday’s press conference that the City can’t tell Foxwoods where to move anymore than it can tell any other private enterprise where to move.
DiCicco said last week that he believes if things don’t work out for Foxwoods at The Gallery, they will go back to their waterfront site. At that site, they have most of the permits needed to receive their building permit. And earlier this week, the State Supreme Court appointed a judge to monitor dealings between Foxwoods and the city. This judge, called a Special Master, is supposed to act as an intermediary in disputes and make sure the City follows the courts earlier orders related to Foxwoods.
The Court’s short order, issued late Tuesday, does not specify a location to which it applies. That had both city and state officials and Foxwoods officials wondering whether the Special Master would be involved in discussions and applications involving The Gallery site.
Thursday, Nutter said the city was proceeding as if it did not, because when the request for a Special Master was made, The Gallery was not on the table.
A Foxwood spokesman Wednesday said casino officials had no comment on their interpretation of the order. Nor would they comment on whether the order made them reconsider staying put on the waterfront site.
Nutter said so far as he can tell, Foxwoods remains extremely interested in The Gallery site.
DiCicco said that at present, he believes the majority of Chinatown residents oppose the project, but as more details come in and more public sessions are held, some might change their minds. Chinatown is not the only neighborhood that gets projects residents oppose, he said, referring to the sports and entertainment facilities in South Philadelphia.
The mayor and councilman spoke enthusiastically of how the casino might help revitalize the entire Market East corridor, but insisted that the project is not a done deal.
“There is no other idea out there that could potentially add the economic impact that this potentially could,” Nutter said. “That site is certainly better (than the waterfront site), but they will have to go through the same process as anybody else to convince us it’s right for the city.”
The introduced legislation was sent to the Committee on the Rules. If it passes committee, it will go before Council for a vote. But before that happens, the Planning Commission will weigh in. Next Tuesday, the Commission will discuss the legislation at an open meeting, the location of which has not yet been determined. Commission Chairman Andy Altman said the usual room at 1515 Arch Street isn’t big enough to hold the anticipated crowd.
The Commission will make a recommendation to Council prior to Nov. 1, when Council will hold a public hearing on the legislation.
After Council passes the legislation, Foxwoods can submit a plan of development, which would include detailed physical plans for the building as well as traffic, economic and social impact studies, Altman said. The Planning Commission will review the plans and receive public comment on them, and then will vote to either approve or disapprove.
Neither Council nor the Planning Commission can vote on the casino without these detailed plans, Nutter said. Altman said Foxwoods has told the city they will have something together within 60 to 90 days.
If the Planning Commission approves the plan, it goes to City Council, which would also review them at a public meeting and then vote yes or no.
Part of what Council considers will be the location, said DiCicco spokesman Brian Abernathy. And Council could vote no based on location. “We would need a very specific reason to say no to a specific place,” he said.
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