City Council passes bills allowing SugarHouse to forge ahead with revised expansion

By Kellie Patrick Gates and Jared Brey
For PlanPhilly

SugarHouse Casino scored another win for its revised expansion plans Thursday, when Philadelphia City Council unanimously adopted bills extending zoning that allows for a casino on an adjacent parcel, permitting retaining walls to be built within a waterfront setback, and relocating a utility right-of-way.

The bills, all sponsored by outgoing First District City Councilman Frank DiCicco, were passed with the blessing of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission at its November meeting.

One member of the public, attorney Paul Boni who represents the non-profit group Stop Predatory Gambling, testified in opposition to the bills. He said he feels that SugarHouse benefits largely from gambling addicts and problem gamblers, and that future expansions should be accompanied by health studies.

To move forward, SugarHouse must also get permits and/or approvals from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the city water department.

Casino spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said Wednesday that SugarHouse has not yet formally petitioned the state gaming control board for approval of its revised plans. Before voting, the board will hold a public hearing on the changes.

SugarHouse CEO Greg Carlin said at a November Rules Committee hearing that the casino would over the next several months “be working with various government agencies to obtain all necessary permits and approvals required for the proposed expansion.” Assuming those approvals are granted, construction could start in Summer 2012, with an anticipated completioin date of Fall 2013.

“This proposed expansion will bring our total investment in SugarHouse casino to more than $500 million,” Carlin said. Read his full testimony here.

The revised plan for the next phase of development calls for a parking garage 40 feet shorter than what was previously approved, but with the option of building outward instead of upward if there is the need for more parking in the future. All but 10 percent of the big parking lot that fronts the casino now was originally designed to disappear when the garage was built. But under this plan, the surface lot stays.

Under the Phase 1A expansion proposal, the garage would be reduced from 10 stories atop a deck of expanded casino space to a ground floor plus six stories of auto storage. The ground floor includes a poker room, VIP lounges, two new restaurants and “back of house” uses. A partial second floor addition would be added to the existing casino building for a banquet hall.

The garage would contain 1,500 parking spots at first. The casino’s square footage would increase from 81,000 to 152,000, and gaming positions would increase from 1,696 to 2,620.

SugarHouse did not come up with these changes in isolation. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger, who also chairs the planning commission, told commissioners his office had negotiated with the casino for the shorter garage, which he said would have much less of an impact on the waterfront. Greenberger and SugarHouse representatives also pointed out the changes would allow for the expansion of SugarHouse’s portion of the waterfront trail to within two narrow parcels of Penn Treaty Park. The quasi-city agency that oversees waterfront development, The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, is in right-of-way negotiations with the owners of those two remaining parcels, in hopes of completing the connection, he said.

Third Federal Bank, which owns the parcel right next to Penn Treaty – 1143 N. Delaware Avenue,  has opposed changing any zoning without doing a thorough study of the area that considered the recommendations of the Central Delaware Master Plan. A bank attorney asked the PCPC to hold off on its recommendation.

One Commissioner, Nancy Rogo-Trainer, was uncertain that was true, and voted against the changes.

Other critics include the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, whose members each represent a waterfront community or organization. CDAG exists to advocate for the public’s vision for the Central Delaware waterfront, and members concluded that neither the original expansion plan nor the revised plan meet those objectives. In a letter asking the PCPC not to recommend approval of the legislation, CDAG wrote that “the scale does not fit in with the Civic Vision and sets a serious precedent for development along the river.” Supporting it “misses an opportunity” to urge the casino to changes more consistent with the goals of the master plan, the letter states.

The garage – which would include additional slots and table games on the ground floor – would be built on 19 acres north of the current site at 1107-1119 N. Delaware Avenue. Casinos can only operate in Philadelphia on property zoned Commercial Entertainment District, which is why SugarHouse needed City Council to pass Zoning Bill 110719, enlarging the SugarHouse CED to include this land.

Right now, a combined sewer overflow is in the way. SugarHouse hopes to get Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection approval to relocate the sewer elsewhere on the property. The water department is discussing the particulars with the casino, but staff is supportive of moving the CSO.  Also-adopted Streets Bill 110718 modifies the curb line of North Delaware Avenue from Frankford Avenue to Marlborough Street and relocates a utility right-of-way to permit casino expansion.

Zoning Bill 110717
, also adopted by council, allows the casino to place retaining walls into a required 50-foot setback. Casino representatives say the retaining walls were needed in order to provide the walkway.

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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