By Kellie Patrick Gates
City Council unanimously approved zoning legislation that would allow Foxwoods Casino to operate at the former Strawbridge & Clothier building.
When the legislation passed out of committee, its sponsor, 1st District Councilman Frank DiCicco said he would not bring the matter to full council for a final vote unless and until the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the portion of the building where Foxwoods hopes to operate, reached a lease agreement with the casino and ironed out a real estate issue with Gramercy Capital Corporation, another Strawbridge building owner. If there were not done-deals, DiCicco said, there would at least have to be legally binding documentation that the agreements were forthcoming. He did not bring the legislation up for a vote at last week’s council meeting for these reasons.
But after Thursday’s council vote, DiCicco said he has since determined that his pledge to withhold the final vote was “a mistake.”
The Strawbridge building is a commercial condominium. Just as the Rules Committee was preparing to vote on the zoning legislation, an attorney representing Gramercy said his client believes switching the zoning to Commercial Entertainment District would be harmful to them. DiCicco said that day he had concerns that making the change without an agreement could lead to a lawsuit that, regardless of merit, could delay the casino project.
“I misspoke at the time,” DiCicco said Thursday. “It was kind of a curveball I was thrown that day, and I thought there were some issues that I could actively engage in that would correct that. Since then I’ve been educated that it is a private matter between a condo owner and a landlord, and I am not going to get in the middle of that dispute and I retract the statement, and I apologize for it.”
DiCicco said a lawsuit over the zoning change was still a possibility. “I’m concerned that there could be a delay, but again, that’s an issue between the two parties.”
The same concept applies to his change of heart about requiring a lease between Foxwoods and PREIT, DiCicco said – that’s an issue between Foxwoods and PREIT.
At Thursday’s meeting, when the zoning change came up for a vote, a handful of anti-casino activists held up signs asking “Where’s the lease?” and “Where’s the plan?” The activists don’t want any casinos in Philadelphia – at least not close to any neighborhoods.
DiCicco said during pre-vote remarks that he understands the problems associated with gaming – traffic, addiction, and safety concerns – but that he also knows a casino would create jobs and tax revenue, and help revitalize Market Street East. He said he was confident the city administration could alleviate any problems. And with the city’s budget in the shape it’s in, he said, Philadelphia needs the money the casinos would bring.
No other council members commented on the CED legislation prior to the vote. Previous coverage
“Foxwoods is incredibly pleased for the support we have received from City Council and we thank Councilman DiCicco, in particular, for his courageous leadership on this issue,” said spokeswoman Maureen Garrity. “We now look forward to the Mayor’s signature.”
While DiCicco didn’t think he should hold up the legislation for these real estate issues, he does think they could pose a problem for Foxwoods; The casino does not have site control.
Foxwoods also does not have all needed funding secured. Foxwoods license, which has expired, still lists its original chosen site, Columbus Boulevard and Reed Street on the waterfront in South Philadelphia. Foxwoods has asked the Gaming Control Board for an extension, and has told the board that it intended to ask for a relocation of the license once the city approved the zoning change for Strawbridge’s.
In his pre-vote remarks, DiCicco said he wanted the vote to assure Foxwoods, the Gaming Control Board and state lawmakers that council and the city are firmly behind opening a casino at the Strawbridge site. But if Foxwoods decided to return its focus on the waterfront site, either by choice or because the Gaming Control Board did not approve a move to Strawbridge’s, he would “fight like hell to stop it.”
The activists yelled that he was looking out for the interests of only part of his district. Security soon asked the group to leave the room.
“They have no lease, no plan, and no money. All the things (DiCicco) said had to be negotiated before this moves forward are not in place,” said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, which is part of the No Casino In the Heart of Our City Coalition.
DiCicco also said during the meeting: “If this partnership should fail, if the credit markets are simply too difficult, or if the gaming board, for whatever reason, decides to rebid this license, I hope they realize that Philadelphia has made a choice. Market East can work.”
When asked after the meeting if his remarks meant that he thought Foxwood’s unresolved issues might be putting its license in jeopardy, DiCicco said, “I’m not going to prejudge what the Gaming Board’s decision might be, but it’s possible. That’s really up to the gaming board.”
Garrity said now that Council has passed the CED, Foxwoods will be both going before the Planning Commission and petitioning the Gaming Control Board regarding the Strawbridge site. “But we do not have a timetable for either at this point.”
No hearing date has been set for the license extension request, Garrity said. When asked if Foxwoods had any concern that the unresolved issues at the Strawbridge site could lead the PGCB to hesitate on the extension request, Garrity said she could not speculate.
Somekawa and Jethro Heiko of Casino-Free Philadelphia were among the activists asked to leave the meeting. They spoke in a hallway outside Council chambers. They said their organizations will continue to fight against both Foxwoods and SugarHouse, the other casino planned for Philadelphia, as the Planning Commission reviews the projects’ plans of development and the city re-negotiates the tax agreements it had reached with Foxwoods at the casino’s originally proposed South Philadelphia waterfront site. Casino-Free and No Casino will be fighting from a newly leased, joint headquarters they are calling the No Slots Spot – located right across the street from the Strawbridge site at 718 Market Street.
Waterfront Overlay District
Council also took action – but not the expected action – on legislation aimed at creating a multi-use riverfront trail, a dense retail/commercial corridor, and connections between neighborhoods and the Delaware River via a zoning overlay. The district, which would stretch between Oregon and Allegheny Avenues, came one step closer to becoming law when City Council approved technical amendments to the bill Thursday morning.
These amendments, introduced by DiCicco, were unanimously passed. City Council will vote on whether or not to approve the bill, which would create the Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay District, when it convenes next week. The original overlay legislation has been described as a place holder designed to protect the area from development that would prevent the city from realizing its waterfront development goals until a master plan and related zoning changes are in place. The master plan is expected to be completed in 12 to 18 months. Many civic groups support the overlay. But some waterfront landowners and a development organization oppose it.
A group that has lobbied hard for the overlay, the Central Delaware Advisory Group, comprised of representatives from many riverfront neighborhood organizations, held its regular meeting Thursday morning. It expect the legislation will pass, and members said that while it’s not perfect – they would really rather have a 100-foot or 20 percent setback – they are pleased with the bill. They plan to send DiCicco a thank you letter. If the overlay passes, the Planning Commission would be charged with establishing specific guidelines on how it will be applied. CDAG’s next step: Lobbying the Commission.
These amendments, introduced by DiCicco, were unanimously passed. City Council will vote on whether or not to approve and create the Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay District when it convenes next week.
The original overlay legislation has been described as a place holder designed to protect the area from development that would prevent the city from realizing its waterfront development goals until a master plan and related zoning changes are in place. The master plan is expected to be completed in 12 to 18 months. Many civic groups support the overlay. But some waterfront landowners and a development organization oppose it. See previous coverage.
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