Early plans for the Live! Hotel and Casino at the sports complex in South Philadelphia include an 18-story hotel, restaurants, two casino floors and a seven-story parking garage, according to a presentation reviewed by the Planning Commission on Tuesday.
Cordish Companies, of Baltimore, was issued the city’s second and final gaming license by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board last fall. The Board believed that the Cordish proposal was the best choice among the five applications because of the potential for “synergy” with sporting and entertainment events at the Packer Avenue complex.
The license was initially appealed by developer Bart Blatstein, who had proposed a casino and resort at the former Inquirer newspaper headquarters on North Broad Street. Blatstein later dropped his appeal, but the license is still under appeal from rival casino SugarHouse, in Fishtown. But Cordish and its partners are moving forward with their plans pending a state Supreme Court decision on the appeal.
On Tuesday, the group made an “information only” presentation of to the Planning Commission. The Commission, which requested the presentation, will eventually have to approve a master plan for the site regulating things like height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR). The site will also need to be rezoned to a Special Purpose Entertainment (SP-ENT) district, the only classification in the city that allows gambling. That rezoning ordinance could be introduced by any member of City Council, but is likely to be introduced by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the area, following the tradition of Councilmanic Prerogative.
The Cordish group said on Tuesday that has had a series of meetings with three community groups in the area surrounding the site, which sits just north of Citizens Bank Park. Residents of the area have been mainly concerned that casino goers won’t use their neighborhood as a parking lot, according to representatives of the developer. Partially because of those concerns, the group is planning to build 3,327 parking spaces, which will be free to people who use the casino, eat at the restaurants, or stay at the hotel.
The developers are also hoping to get some legislative changes to the SP-ENT zoning classification. The current proposal exceeds the FAR limit of the underlying zoning, doesn’t meet the open-space requirements, and would need changes to digital sign controls in order to be approved in its current design.
Members of the Planning Commission said they wished the presentation had included more context. The architects, BLT based in Philadelphia and Klai Juba Wald based in Las Vegas, did a good job of explaining the building, but a bad job of showing how it would relate to the stadiums and other surrounding uses, said Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer. If the casino is really going to take advantage of all the activity in the area generated by the sports stadiums, it’s going to have to show a clear pedestrian plan connecting the various sites.
There are bigger issues, too. Cordish has been sued for racial discrimination in three states, and local black leaders decried the gaming board’s selection of Cordish because the group had no minority ownership. National Action Network, a civil rights group founded by Rev. Al Sharpton, was on hand Tuesday to ask the Planning Commission to hold off making any decisions until the results of its investigation are released, likely sometime in the next two weeks.
Paula Peebles, chairwoman of the local NAN, said that Cordish has been accused of employment discrimination and of systematically trying to limit the number of black people in its casinos. She said that both the local NAACP and the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, headed by Rev. Terrence Griffith, had failed to conduct adequate investigations of the allegations against Cordish.
“Particularly the Black Clergy is alleged to have conducted their investigation,” said Peebles. “However, their investigation, in our most humble opinion, was not done in its totality because [Rev. Griffith] never spoke to any of the plaintiffs. He never spoke to any of the employees. We have.”
Peebles said that the Philly NAN would release the results of its investigation in about 10 days.
“There’s a big question mark currently, and we want to put a period there,” she said.
Cordish said that is working with the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity to meet goals for minority participation and local hiring.
Paul Boni, an attorney and anti-casino activist, asked whether the casino would include any “Asian-themed” gambling rooms or restaurants. Last month, Billy Penn reported that early architectural renderings in fact showed a gaming area called the “Asian pit,” with games meant to draw Asian customers. The Washington Post has reported that Cordish has marketed specifically marketed to Asian customers at some of its other casinos. The city recently unveiled a mural in South Philadelphia called “Fables of Fortune,” which addresses gambling addiction among Asian communities.
Boni also asked why Cordish hadn’t designed its proposal to meet the standards laid out in the SP-ENT zoning category.
The Commission didn’t take a vote on Tuesday. It is likely to vote on a master plan sometime this fall, according to Gary Jastrzab, director of the Commission. Cordish needs that approval, but it won’t be able to start building until City Council decides to rezone the property.
Watch full video of hearing below