Inga Saffron: planning starts for downtown casino

Nov. 14

From Inga Saffron’s Changing Skyline blog

The Nutter Administration isn’t wasting any time in laying the planning groundwork for a Center City casino. No sooner did City Council approve the creation of a Market Street entertainment district yesterday, then the Planning Department and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. posted advertisements seeking five separate consultants to help the city prepare for the expected arrival of a Foxwoods slots parlor in the western end of The Gallery.

The job with the greatest implication for the city’s future is the one listed third, calling for a firm capable of developing a strategic plan for the Market Street East corridor, from the Convention Center to Independence Mall, Chinatown to Wash West. The big reason that a Gallery-based casino has drawn such wide support is that many are convinced it will be the catalyst for new development on that tired street. Writing in the Center City District’s Fall newsletter, Paul Levy argues that the casino will enable the city to use a special financing mechanism called a TIF to pay for infrastructure, transit and streetscape improvements, which would presumably make the street more attractive to hotels, retail and other development. It’s astonishing how that once great shopping street has been allowed to languish. Poor Strawbridge & Clothier has been waiting for a suitor for well over a year. Which, of course, is nothing compared to the lifespan of the empty lot at 8th and Market – over 30 years. In the last few months, the number of empty storefronts has been increasing at an alarming clip.

Ideally, the development of the city’s strategic plan will be accompanied by a vigorous public debate about how Market Street should evolve, similar to the open and lively conversations that occurred during the Penn Praxis study of the Delaware waterfront. Several people, including Levy in the Center City District newsletter, have been floating the idea of turning Market Street into Philadelphia’s answer to Times Square, and allowing the same kind of exuberant lighting and signage. Just recently, the head of the Redevelopment Authority, Terry Gillen, who has been advising Mayor Nutter on the casinos, raised the possibility that SugarHouse may ask the city for a Market Street location – the obvious choice being the big empty lot at 8th and Market.

While Nutter says he strongly opposes a second downtown casino, it’s not too early to start worrying that he could reverse that position. One casino, located on the third floor of the Gallery’s anonymous box, is something, I believe, the area could absorb. But add a second, purpose-built casino and you start to create a gambling district. Better to talk about other uses that could be compatible with Foxwoods, like hotels and shops. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine someday – after the current bust subsides – some residential towers creeping onto Market Street.

Posted by Inga Saffron at 12:48 PM

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