Changing Skyline: An artful urban casino or more big-box blah?

Changing Skyline: An artful urban casino or more big-box blah?

Pennsylvania’s new casinos take the architectural term decorated shed very much to heart.

Harrah’s Chester, the first to open in the Philadelphia region, actually is a metal shed, similar to the quickie warehouses that pop up along the New Jersey Turnpike but glammed up with an appliqué of glass and neon. Bensalem’s three-month-old Parx resembles a big-box store with big LED screens – it’s casino meets Costco. SugarHouse, now rising on Philadelphia’s Delaware River, promises to be much the same.

So what are the chances that the South Philadelphia casino formally known as Foxwoods will turn out any better now that gaming maverick Steve Wynn has attached his name to the project?

In the formulaic world of casino design, Wynn ranks as an innovator. His Bellagio, which opened in 1998, was the first to infuse the Las Vegas mega-casino with some of the highbrow feel of a European resort. He did it by engaging a smart architect, Jon Jerde, and packing the place with chef-driven restaurants, designer boutiques, a full-service spa, and a serious art museum. The result was a place you might want to visit even if you don’t gamble.

But Wynn’s pronouncements after becoming the lead investor in the controversial Foxwoods project made you wonder whether the guy had lost his touch, along with his interpersonal skills.

Wynn, one of the Wharton School’s more famous graduates, managed to be both flip and insulting by promising to build “the cutest casino” ever, and to include an Asian restaurant to placate South Philly’s Vietnamese population. Does he think that the prospect of mediocre pho tai will make someone feel better about a massive, 24-hour entertainment venue in the rowhouse neighborhood?

Wynn looked outright bumbling when he told The Inquirer’s Jennifer Lin in a videotaped interview that he had never heard of the Civic Vision for the Delaware, the official city guide to waterfront development. You would think that a guy who’s about to drop $250 million might have consulted the local rule book.

Let’s not give up on Wynn’s design capabilities yet. “He does it better than anyone else, especially with table games,” insists Roger Gros, an industry expert who publishes several magazines, including CasinoDesign. Wynn’s successor to Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas, and his new Encore in Macao both maintain a high standard.

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