By Thomas J. Walsh
At a special session of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission on Wednesday, an amended plan of development for the SugarHouse casino planned for North Delaware Avenue was approved by a vote of 4 to 2.
The vote was to approve changes (at times and in places variously described as “minor” or “significant”) to the SugarHouse plan approved in May 2007. Then, and again Wednesday, the SugarHouse presentation was handled by attorney Tom Witt, of Cozen O’Connor, and by architect Ian Cope.
As such, it was a unique meeting for the Commission in two ways. First, only one of the members of the Commission that approved the initial plan of development is still seated, and he (Patrick Eiding) was absent Wednesday.
Second, the Planning Commission has been greatly empowered during the intervening two years, with a new mayor giving priority to proper planning initiatives. A highly respected national player was recruited as chairman (Deputy Mayor for Commerce and Economic Development Andy Altman, whose last meeting was today – his last day on the job is Friday), and a successful, private sector Center City architect was wooed to take over as the Commission’s fulltime executive director (Alan Greenberger).
More to the point, the Commission now has the last word on officially submitted plans of development, the result of legislation introduced earlier this spring by Councilman Frank DiCicco.
This was an occasion in which that final say was heard loud and clear.
The new authority granted the Commission also resulted in a much more formal atmosphere, with all those speaking on the matter (including the Commissioners themselves) having to stand, raise their right hands and be sworn in. All comments and written testimony were entered into the official city record. In the past, public comment was more or less an ad hoc affair.
Before the Commission voted on the amendment, 10 people used the public comment period to voice their continued opposition to the location, design and size of the casino.
“This hearing is a farce,” said Lily Cavanaugh, spokeswoman for Casino-Free Philadelphia. “If the re-designed SugarHouse slots parlor gets built, it would be a clear testament to poor city planning, assuming there’s any planning going on at all. As Common Cause pointed out yesterday, this is what’s really happening …”
Cavanaugh then deposited a large, clear plastic bag with oversized mint-green “dollars” on the stage at the Commissioners’ feet, to loud applause from 50 or more supporters. Two other activists who live near the SugarHouse site followed suit, voicing the same statement and making their deposits.
Earlier, Witt, during his remarks, said, “The important thing … for the Commission is to recognize what is not before you today. For instance, the question of whether or not this is the appropriate site for a casino is not a question before you today.”
Likewise, the question of authorizing 3,000 slots with accessory parking and accessory food and beverage is also not before the Commission, he added, nor the eventual build-out to 5,000 slots. “What is before you today is the amendments,” Witt said.
The amendments to the POD concern the casino’s “interim” and “Phase I” stages of the casino. One big change is that the size of the “promenade” has been reduced – rather than use an elevated deck surface that would have extended partially over the river, the walkway will now be on existing ground.
Perhaps the most controversial change for the first two stages of development is in plans for the casino’s front façade and the land in front of the main structure, facing west. Originally approved with a porte-cochere entrance and open space, it will now consist of an open-air surface parking lot. SugarHouse says the change is necessary since a planned parking garage will not be built until Phase I is ready to commence, presumably to be financed on the back of Interim phase slots income.
“We believe the development of the SugarHouse project has the potential – right now – to transform a vacant industrial site into a resource for the community,” said Cope. “It begins to sew the thread to make the kinds of meaningful physical connections, entertainment opportunities, and a continuity of thinking along the length of that waterfront that we have aspired to for a long time.”
There was also the amended provision for additional off-site parking on land just north of the SugarHouse site at 1107-19 Delaware Avenue. No off-site parking was approved in the approved POD of two years ago.
The location of traffic lights at Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street will be moved south – to the 23-acre property’s entrance – in another piece of the amendment.
Yeas and neas
Commissioners voting for those amendments were Joe Syrnick, Nilda Ruiz, Peggy Van Belle (representing city Finance Director Rob Dubow) and Anuj Gupta (representing city Managing Director Camille Cates Barnett).
Those voting no were Natalia Olson de Savyckyj and Nancy Rogo Trainer.
Commissioners Eiding and Bernard Lee were absent. Eiding is the president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO and often comments or asks questions about employment impacts. Lee is a real estate and municipal law attorney at Cozen O’Connor, the same law firm that represents HSP Gaming L.P., the owner of SugarHouse. Lee regularly abstains from votes involving city casinos.
Though they usually steer all discussions on matters before the Commission, neither Chairman Andrew Altman or Executive Director Alan Greenberger are considered Commissioners, and are not allowed a vote.
“Did you see this?” Olson said after the meeting, motioning to printed booklets of the re-designed casino, provided by SugarHouse. “It looks like it’s a tin roof from the sides. I mean, are they serious? It looks like a Wal-Mart, dressed up. Cope Linder has been trying to say it’s a ‘neighborhood casino’ for a long time. It’s not.”
Olson, who has been out of the country on a trade mission, said today was the first time she had seen the design with the amendments. Drawings and computer-generated posters of what was presented today were made available to the public for viewing by the Planning Commission staff all last week, and a very large PDF file has lately been up on the Commission’s Web site (http://www.philaplanning.org/plans/gaming/sugarhouse/SHamendedPOD060909.pdf).
Olson said she did not know that the re-designed plan of development would “not look very much different from the one from two years ago.”
Rogo Trainer, the other “no” vote, told the development team that she was not against a casino on the riverfront, but that she viewed their plan of development as a “lost opportunity” to create something with a more urban feel, rather than something “that could be anywhere” and “rather suburban” in look.
Olson, an urban planner by training with extensive overseas experience, also weighed in on this point, saying she was familiar with European casinos, and wondered why the design called for such an expansive one-story structure.
Cope replied that it was a challenge, financially, to build differently in the current fiscal environment. Stressing the eventual build-out to the second and third phases in coming years, he said that plans called for eventual new buildings with storefronts, perhaps with apartments above them, along the edge of Delaware Avenue – creating the urban fabric feel they were discussing, while at the same time insulating the casino further from the established neighborhood.
“Our new approach to the overall plan is decidedly more urban than suburban,” Cope said.
Olson also called the planned parking garage “a monstrosity,” especially sitting next to the one-story casino. In addition, she questioned the development time line, fearing five years or more with acres and acres of surface parking.
Given the facts of Cope’s presentation, it would in fact be a minimum of three years with mostly surface parking – and that’s if construction on the interim casino can get started before Labor Day.
Understanding the garage
The garage would be equipped with “high capacity speed ramps,” Cope said, to prevent backed-up traffic spilling onto Delaware Avenue. It will be built at “the soonest practical point. … In any event, and as required currently in the ordinance, the construction of the garage must precede any further expansion of the casino.”
The timing of the phases was in question throughout the course of the hearing, with the development team consistently replying that they had a very large incentive to keep the ball rolling as quickly as possible. Still, it was estimated that the garage could get started anywhere from “four to nine months” after the opening of the interim casino – which itself will take about 10 months to erect. If construction starts this summer, it would meet SugarHouse’s new goal of the second quarter of 2010 for opening.
Tacking the minimum four months onto that time frame, building of the garage could get started by September or October 2010. Beyond that, timing is tough to pin down, and the SugarHouse team didn’t sugarcoat it.
“Understanding the rationale for deferring garage construction is very important,” Cope told the Commission. “Given the size and relative complexity of the garage structure, and in order to fully design and engineer the various facades and structural components, then fabricate them, then ship them to the site and erect them, it is estimated that the garage could take as long as 22 or more months to complete.”
Doing the rough math, that means sometime in the late months of 2012, at the earliest, before construction of Phase I could begin.
Hence the urgent desire for an “interim casino” and its attendant jobs and revenues, Cope said.
Fish out of the mainstream
The hearing brought out plenty of local media. “Zoning and Planning Commission meetings aren’t usually known for their excitement,” Channel 6 reporter Amy Buckman said at the start of her piece, which led the 6 p.m. newscast.
Rittenhouse Square tower
There was one other item on the Planning Commission’s agenda Wednesday: a zoning matter concerning 2116-32 Chestnut Street, where developer John Buck Co. wants to build a 30-story mixed-use tower.
The building would have 322 residential units and related spaces, along with more than 9,200 square feet of retail stores, some 44,000 square feet of office space and 119 above-grade parking spaces.
Currently a medical office building is on the site, and the new building would continue to have medical office tenants, the developer has told the Commission in previous presentations. The building is said to be performing poorly from a financial standpoint, and may be in danger of closing and, if so, remaining vacant.
A point of contention has been the placement of the 30-story tower on the site, but most sticking points about height and setbacks appeared to have been resolved.
The builder has been working closely with Greenberger and the Planning Commission staff, and has had close talks to hammer out desired changes and concessions for two influential nearby churches: the First Unitarian Church at 2125 Chestnut Street, and the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion across the street at 2110 Chestnut.
The development team was therefore clearly disappointed that a decision was delayed, though it appears all but certain an approval will be had at the July 21 meeting.
While the Planning Commission staff recommended approval, the commissioners deferred to a group of residents on 22nd Street that claim they knew nothing of the plans until a few days ago, and that secret meetings were taking place.
Greenberger mildly objected to that, saying the development has been in the public domain since at least January, when the company first gave an “information only” presentation to the Planning Commission. The developers claim they have been speaking with neighbors and members of the Center City Residents Association for a year.
Commissioners voted for a one-month delay, saying the time between the next monthly meeting in July – and Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting soon after that – would allow for more dialogue between the developer and the 22nd Street neighbors.
The John Buck Co. is an excellent developer with a solid national reputation, Altman said, and is “exactly the kind of developer we want to attract here.”
The development would require City Council approvals and construction is not expected to start before the end of 2009.
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ON THE WEB:
SugarHouse Amended Plan of Development: http://www.philaplanning.org/plans/gaming/sugarhouse/SHamendedPOD060909.pdf
Casino-Free Philadelphia: http://www.casinofreephila.org/events/2009/06/anti-casino-circus
Daily News (Clout): http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/cityhall/49006236.html
Channel 6: http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/local&id=6882702