Foxwoods: More time on South Philly option

UPDATED

May 22, 2009

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

With a casino operating license that’s about to expire and no guarantee they can move forward at the Strawbridge site, Foxwoods officials Friday asked the state’s gaming control board for a license extension at their originally proposed South Philadelphia waterfront location.

Under pressure from the public and city officials, Foxwoods had agreed to look at other locations. After briefly considering The Gallery at Market East, Foxwoods settled on the former site of the Strawbridge & Clothier department store at 8th and Market streets.  And while some neighborhood activists and anti-casino groups don’t like that site, either, the Nutter administration and other state and city leaders practically gushed. They think this site could rev up a dead part of town and take advantage of the nearby convergence of public transportation.

Foxwoods officials say they like the site, too. For one thing, they’ve said, they can be up and running much quicker in an existing building. And having the support of people like Mayor Michael Nutter, Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger and 1st District Councilman Frank DiCicco has been a nice change.

But to operate a casino at the Strawbridge building, Foxwoods needs the site to be zoned a Commerical Entertainment District. And with less than a month before Council goes on summer recess, a real estate snag has put the legislation that would do that in limbo.

On Thursday, City Council passed a related bill, No. 090294, which amended the city’s Commercial Entertainment District classification. The big change: The City Planning Commission now has final approval on any development proposed within in CED. City Council will not vote on the plan of development. Critics said Council was abdicating its responsibility; advocates said its the Planning Commission that has the needed expertise to make development decisions.

But what Foxwoods needs now is for Council to pass Bill No. 090295, a mapping bill that would zone the Strawbridge Building as a CED.  DiCicco, did not bring the bill up for a vote on Thursday. And he has vowed not to until The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, owner of the floors of the building which Foxwoods hopes to lease, can work out issues raised by Gramercy Capital Corp., which owns the upper floors of the building, a commercial condominium. A Gramercy representative came to a May 7 Rules Committee hearing to ask that the city hold off on the mapping bill “because we believe that a rezoning of the 801 Market Street site in the manner proposed is not in our best interests or in the best interests of our tenants,” said Joshua D. Cohen, an attorney with GreenbergTraurig who spoke for Gramercy.

There was still no resolution prior to Thursday’s council meeting, said Brian Abernathy, DiCicco’s policy chief, via email. So there was no vote.

Foxwoods has not given up on the Strawbridge location. But local investor representative Brian Ford has said casino officials will not ask the Gaming Control Board for a license relocation until City Council changes the zoning.

“It’s still an interesting site,” said Foxwoods spokeswoman Maureen Garrity. “But obviously issues have to be worked out between Gramercy and PREIT. Foxwoods continues to preserve our right to build on the South Columbus Boulevard location.”

In paperwork filed Friday with the Gaming Control Board, Foxwoods makes their intentions clear: They would prefer to develop the Strawbridge site, but if anything happens, or doesn’t happen, to prevent that, it’s back to the waterfront.

“Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia intends to petition this Board to relocate the physical location of its licensed facility to the 801 Market Street site for good cause…as soon as it is assured that all material impediments to construction have been reasonably addressed.”

Then, later in the document: “In the event that the relocation of its licensed facility cannot be accomplished, either for business reasons or this Board’s determination, Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia remains committed to proceed with development of its licensed facility at the Columbus Boulevard site.” A link to the complete document follows this article.

Under their current operating license, Foxwoods was to be up and running by May 30, the day the license expires. Under state gaming law, Foxwoods may ask for an extension of up to two years.

Incoming Society Hill Civic Association president Rosanne Loesch said things with Foxwoods are far too uncertain for the state to grant an extension. “When we go before the gaming control board,  we will argue it would be mindboggling if they would extend the license for this operator and these investors given these circumstances,” she said.

Abernathy said the CED mapping legislation could still be voted on at Council’s June 4 meeting.

DiCicco said after the May 13 Rules Committee hearing that he would not move forward with this legislation until PREIT reaches agreements with both Gramercy and Foxwoods. PREIT and Foxwoods are still working on the details of a lease, and Foxwoods officials say they cannot create a plan of development until those details are worked out.

At the least, DiCicco said, PREIT would have to show him legally binding documents that say agreements are forthcoming.

DiCicco surmised there could be something in the ownership agreement that would prohibit the bottom floors from being used as a casino. He is concerned that Council or PREIT could find itself in court if Council passed the CED mapping bill without an agreement between PREIT and Gramercy. DiCicco said it would not matter if the potential lawsuits had merit because any suit would slow down the already delayed process of opening a casino at the site.

Neither Gramercy nor PREIT have responded yet to requests for comment.

Garrity said she would not speculate about what Foxwoods would do if Council breaks for the summer without  having voted on the CED mapping bill.

See previous coverage, which includes links to the bills and videos of testimony, here.

Read the full text of Foxwoods’ petition to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board by clicking on the link below.

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