SugarHouse gets planning commission support for revised expansion plan, related ordinances

SugarHouse Casino Tuesday received the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s blessing for a revised expansion plan and support for three related zoning and streets bills.

The revisions for the next phase of development call 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 if City Council and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board also approve the changes, the surface lot will stay.

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, said Planner Marty Gregorski, and gaming positions would increase from 1,696 to 2,620.

Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger, who is also the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development and director of commerce, said his office had been negotiating with the casino for the shorter garage, which he said would have less of an impact.

One commissioner, Nancy Rogo-Trainer, voted against the proposal. When SugarHouse representatives presented the same plans on an information-only basis in September, Rogo-Trainer said she wanted proof that expanding the garage outward would present less of an impact than building up. She also questioned the need for one of the proposed zoning bills, 110717, which would allow the casino to place retaining walls into a required 50-foot setback.  Casino representatives said the retaining walls were needed in order to provide the walkway. Planner Gregoski said the retaining walls would not interfere with the 20-foot swath needed for the multi-purpose trail.

Another commissioner, Saskia Thompson, asked how the garage would look from the waterfront trail or a boat. She never got an answer that satisfied her, but voted to recommend city council act favorable to the proposal, anyway. After the meeting, Thompson said she is not opposed to a mix of surface and garage parking – she just wishes the garage could be screened in some way, or otherwise made more attractive.

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, and so City Council would need to enlarge the SugarHouse CED to include this land. The commission recommended passage of Zoning Bill 110719, which expands the casino’s Commercial Entertainment District on that parcel.
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. City Planner Gregorski told Commissioners the water department is discussing the particulars with the casino, but staff is supportive of moving the CSO.
The commission also recommended passage of Streets Bill 110718, which 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.

Based on staff recommendation, the Planning Commission approved the plan of development and design review for phase 1A.  Conceptual POD approval only was granted for phase IB, which includes more gaming floor expansion and a 300-foot tall hotel, but casino representatives will have to come back before the commission with more details, Gregorski said.

On behalf of her client, Third Federal Bank, which owns 1143 N. Delaware Avenue (adjacent to Penn Treaty Park, two parcels north of the parcel that would be rezoned CED), attorney Dawn Tancredi urged the Planning Commission to hold off on changing any zoning without doing a thorough study of the area. The study should consider the recommendations of the Central Delaware Master Plan, which the PCPC will soon consider.

The Central Delaware Advocacy Group, which advocates for the public’s wishes for the future of the Central Delaware Waterfront, sent a letter asking the commission to vote against the proposal “ and recognize 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.

Local attorney Paul Boni, who is on the board of a nation-wide anti-gambling group, Stop Predatory Gambling, also urged the commission to say no to the expansion of the CED zone. It brings the zone too close to Penn Treaty Park, he said.

While several casino representatives were on hand to answer questions, they did not make a formal presentation. After Boni spoke, attorney Thomas Witt asked to respond, however. He said the land the casino is asking to be rezoned “has been part of the casino from Day One” as part of the parking lot, so the zoning changes little.
Greenberger noted that SugarHouse intends to expand its portion of the riverfront trail. Combined with a grant the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has received to stretch the trail along Penn Street and efforts to get rights-of-way from the bank and the owner of the other parcel between the casino and Penn Treaty Park could yield a trail section that is half-a-mile long.

City Council’s Rules Committee holds a hearing on all three SugarHouse related bills at 11 a.m. Wednesday in City Council Chambers.

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