April 15, 2009
By Kellie Patrick Gates
First District City Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced legislation Thursday that would allow Foxwoods Casino to operate at the Strawbridge’s site and would waive Council’s vote on the plan of development.
At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, DiCicco and Mayor Michael Nutter said that this streamlined process has been used for other projects, including Stamper Square and the American Commerce Center. Nutter said it was about giving power to the Planning Commission, and getting them involved early in the process.
“This project will rehabilitate a great building and resuscitate a once-proud commercial corridor,” DiCicco said. “The Planning Commission will have the authority to make final decisions regarding the POD (plan of development),” he said. The changes to the process, if approved by Council, “will expedite the approval process for this project,” DiCicco said, while still ensuring city agencies have the information needed to make a good decision.
Nutter said the city was committed to moving the process along quickly, but also fairly.
But the activists in attendance who oppose the location did not see it that way at all. They said city leaders are trying to push through a decision without having enough information about how a casino would change their neighborhoods or giving the public enough time to comment.
Nutter took a question from Ellen Somekawa, chairwoman of Asian Americans United, at the end of the press conference. Somekawa was outraged by what she had heard. When DiCicco first announced he was introducing Commercial Entertainment District (CED) legislation for The Gallery location, Somekawa said, “you and the mayor announced that it was just the beginning of the process, and that you would be doing studies and a careful review and public input.”
Somekawa said she has seen no studies of economic or social impacts and no analysis on what having a casino will cost the city. “Now you are saying that not only will you allow Foxwoods to choose wherever it wants to put its slots parlor, but now you’re going to forgo City Council approval of the process,” she said.
DiCicco said that Foxwoods will still be required to submit a traffic study, a parking management plan and other information. Foxwoods’ planning process will now coincide with the city’s planning process for the greater Market East corridor, city officials said. After the press conference, Deputy Mayor for planning and commerce Andy Altman said the city’s consultants on the Market East redesign are doing studies as well.
Society Hill Civic Association board member Rosanne Loesch tried to ask a question, too, but Nutter said there was no more time and cut her off. He left the room, but she raised her concerns to reporters and other people who were still there. Loesch said Nutter has “betrayed” the city by cooperating with the casinos instead of fighting them. She, too, is worried that the process has been fast-tracked to the point where the public will not have time to review plans. The Society Hill Civic Association plans to hire its own traffic consultant to analyze Foxwoods’ traffic report, she said, but she worries that the Planning Commission will review and approve the POD before the review can be finished.
Both the mayor and councilman said there will be plenty of opportunity for public comment.
DiCicco introduced two bills Thursday. One would zone Strawbridge’s as CED while simultaneously removing that designation from the Gallery site. DiCicco said he would not support having more than one casino in Center City. The other legislation would waive Council’s vote on the plan of development.
City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed legislation on May 7. The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to Council on the CED legislation, and will consider the proposal at its April 21 meeting. The public will also be able to comment on Foxwoods’ plan of development and the traffic and other studies that must be submitted to the Planning Commission along with it, officials said. No date has been set for that hearing yet, as no drawings have been given to the city.
When asked how much time the public would have to review the POD and related documents before the Planning Commission voted, Altman said he did not know exactly, but any studies and other information would be released to the public as the city acquired it – it would not be held for release at the Planning Commission hearing.
Brian Abernathy, DiCicco’s director of policy and public affairs, said that some of the activists would never be appeased, regardless of how much time they had.
During the conference, DiCicco said he would count a Foxwoods that opened at Strawbridge’s in the win column. That’s in part because he considers it a much better option than the South Philadelphia waterfront, where Foxwoods originally planned to build, and where CEO of Foxwoods’ local investors Brian Ford confirmed they will return if they do not get all the necessary approvals for the 8th and Market location. DiCicco said the city spent “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars” fighting Foxwoods and the other casino slated for Philadephia, SugarHouse, but the State Supreme Court handed them defeat after defeat. The fight “is over,” he said.
It’s not just city approvals Foxwoods’ needs. They told the state Gaming Control Board last week that they are hoping for a Strawbridge’s location, but have yet to formally ask for a license relocation. Ford said that step won’t be made until after the city approvals are in hand.
Ford said all funding is in place and Foxwoods will have spent about $300 million in Philadelphia by the time Phase I opens, which is expected to happen at the beginning of next year. Nutter said the casino will bring 500 jobs at a time when jobs are desperately needed.
Ford said Foxwoods is aware that the building they hope to move into is historic, and Foxwoods will not make changes to the outside of it.
Joseph Coradino, president of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the Strawbridge’s building, said the casino and the other businesses that would spring up around it would help to recreate the bustle of the Market East of the past, when it was a key commercial corridor, lined with many department stores. PREIT holds the primary lease on The Gallery as well – they lease it from the Redevelopment Authority and sublet space to others. Coradino said PREIT has plans to revitalize The Gallery as well as Strawbridges, and called the casino one “small piece” of that greater goal.