There are still no PREIT plans for its casino, but the gate is now open for a plan of development. A second bill is said to give the Commission power to work better within limits placed on the city by state gaming law.
By Thomas J. Walsh
The Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved two zoning bills Tuesday at its monthly meeting that open the door for the owners of the planned Foxwoods Philadelphia casino to go forward with a plan of development at its latest desired location – and an expedited one at that.
Planning Commissioner Natalia Olson de Savyckyj was the lone “no” vote on both bills, which were introduced by City Councilman Frank DiCicco.
The first essentially swaps zoning codes between the northern 1100 block of East Market Street (the Gallery) to the northern 800 block (more specifically, the area bounded by 8th, 9th, Market, and Filbert streets). The 8th and Market location, site of the historic Strawbridge’s department store, has been changed from “C5” to “CED” (commercial entertainment district) in order to facilitate a casino.
Planner Martin Gregorski, Executive Director Alan Greenberger and Deputy Mayor Andrew Altman all stressed that the move changes the zoning maps, but that nothing can happen on the site without a plan of development (POD) from Foxwoods.
So far, no design plans have been forthcoming from the casino owners, other than word that the second and third floors would be where slot machines would go, with the first floor reserved for retail or restaurant use. No timeline has been given.
The second, related bill (the two were heard and deliberated on together) changes the way PODs are approved for CEDs, removing the previously required City Council approval for all PODs.
As it happens, there will only be two sites with this designation, both zoned to permit licensed casinos. The bill states that proposed plans, or amendments to existing PODs, need only City Planning Commission approval to become effective.
(The second bill also changes the off-street loading requirements for CEDs. All off-street loading areas must be built so that trash trucks and other service vehicles enter and exit facilities in forward gear. Under the new bill, the area bounded by Sixth, Broad, Chestnut and Arch streets is exempted from that rule.)
As usual, anti-casino voices were many, and passionate. Representatives from Eastern PA Citizens Against Gambling, Asian Americans United, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the No Casino in the Heart of the City Coalition and the Society Hill Civic Association were among the civic groups with representatives giving testimony.
“This site has been vetted by no one except the owner, and the owner of the casino, personified by the same person, Ron Rubin,” said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, the vocal Chinatown group that has been showing up en masse to every public event concerning Foxwoods.
Rubin is chief executive of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), owner of the Strawbridge’s building. He and his brother George Rubin are listed in the complicated Foxwoods ownership flow chart through charitable family trusts.
Opponents accused the Commission of an accelerated process favoring PREIT, a lack of transparency and insensitivity to gambling addiction.
There was no public testimony in support of the zoning changes for the casinos.
“Personally for all of us, this is a very difficult, very painful process,” Greenberger said, at the conclusion of the public comment period. “It has been formulated for us by the state of Pennsylvania. The rules they have created have made our options extremely limited.”
An upside to the planning process for the Market East area currently underway, he added, is that the city is out in front of Foxwoods by at least several months. That means when the casino operator does reveal its plans, the Commission will be able to consider them in a better context. The two plans were originally to be drawn up parallel with each other when the Foxwoods owners were thought to have settled on a location within the Gallery, three blocks west.
“They didn’t do that,” Greenberger said. “They re-thought what they wanted to do. That is not anything that we had anything to do with.”
Altman said that taking development approvals from City Council means the Planning Commission is finally moving “from an advisory body to a more empowered Commission in terms of plans of development. The council and the mayor are confident that we can do that.”
Olson seemed to agree in principle with the responsibility, but was bothered by PREIT’s lack of information to date.
Altman replied that PREIT “came to the conclusion that Strawbridge’s was the better site,” adding, “It’s much simpler from a physical standpoint.” As a historic building, very little of the exterior will, or can, be changed, he said.
Olson also asked Greenberger for an update on the five-year Market East plan, first introduced publicly at a special evening meeting in February, in a Thomas Jefferson University auditorium.
“We’ve been having numerous stakeholder meetings in our office, and we are in the process of pulling together the core recommendations,” Greenberger said. “It has given us the advantage of being able to get our planning out ahead of the casino.”
“I understand that the Planning Commission has their hands tied to a certain degree,” Olson said, but to re-zone even before seeing a traffic study struck her as distasteful.
“I see it as amazing opportunity to plan,” she said, citing the years of input into the Delaware River waterfront of an example of planning first, and zoning after. “I just feel that it is really tough for me to approve this, because I try to study an area before I make any final decisions.”
That earned her cheers and applause from the forlorn anti-casino crowd. Syrnick asked when PREIT would be bringing the process to the public.
“Once we have a sense of their schedule, we can craft our own schedule,” Greenberger said.
“When the legislation is passed, they will start a plan of development,” Altman said. “Traffic studies will be done.”
Olson, who is also vice chair of the Zoning Code Commission, suggested that that body of 30 professionals from a variety of backgrounds – “a great group of stakeholders – could be a valuable resource for this problem. “It might be a good idea to have them at least look at it and see what the impacts would be. That is going to be a huge change when it comes to our city.”
Moments later, Altman suggesting moving forward on the bills, and they were both approved.
Olson’s “no” votes came despite a general agreement in principle on DiCicco’s legislation.
Chatting before the meeting, Olson and Greenberger said the move to further empower the Planning Commission would at once save time for Council and give the Commission more time to make sure the right considerations are taken into account for any given project.
“I think the councilman, after years of struggle with these kinds of things, just came to the conclusion that he’d rather have these decisions in professional hands rather than in political ones,” said Greenberger. “And for all the right reasons, too.”
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