SugarHouse submits new expansion plan to state, will seek $410m in financing

SugarHouse Casino hopes to borrow more than $410 million to expand the Delaware Avenue gambling venue and refinance debt.

The casino recently submitted amended plans for expansion to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Under this new plan, SugarHouse would build a 7-story parking garage rather than a 10-story one, as called for in the plan currently approved by the gaming commission.

The parking structure would consist of six stories of auto storage atop a ground floor including 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 proposal has already received approval from city planning and needed zoning changes from city council, both in 2011.

In the current gaming-board approved expansion plan, all but 10 percent of the big parking lot that fronts the casino now would disappear when the garage is built. But if PGCB approves the proposed changes, the surface lot will stay. The garage would be built about 40 feet shorter than originally approved, and SugarHouse would retain the option to expand the garage outward instead of upward if the need for more parking arises in the future.

The casino would also expand the existing waterfront promenade, fund the continuation of the riverfront trail through its property, and place additional food and beverage outlets along the river.

This project would bring the casino’s total investment in the property to more than $540 million, according to the documents filed with the gaming board. The $410 million in financing would be used to fund the expansion and also “partially refinance SugarHouse’s existing debt and senior preferred obligations and for general corporate purposes.”

If the gaming board approves the amended plan, “SugarHouse will work to secure financing and get all permits,” the documents state. Construction would take about 24 months from approval, provided the financing and permits go as anticipated.

All documents related to the refinancing will be submitted to the gaming board Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement and the Office of Enforcement Counsel.

Gaming board commissioners will vote on the amended plan at a board meeting, spokesman Doug Harbach said, but a public hearing will first be held in Philadelphia. The date has not been set yet.

When asked if the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s blessing of the revisions and support of related zoning and streets bills which Philadelphia City Council then went on to pass would impact the gaming board decision, Harbach said, “The Board will want to know if all appropriate approvals are being sought and/or received from the local government.”

To make its decision, “the Board will look at financing and if the expansion is in the best interest of the community and the Commonwealth,” he said.

Harbach said statewide, there are frequent changes to facilities, such as changes in the gaming floor. But this proposal is a bit different because “these are structural changes from a previously approved expansion plan.”

In its documents, SugarHouse says the “structural design and program are significantly similar to the 2009 expansion plan,” except the modified plan adds a second-floor meeting and event space that can be used for conferences, meetings, concerts and events.

SugarHouse opened on Sept. 23, 2010. The gaming board had already approved an amended development plan for the second phase of construction on May 6, 2009. In October 2009, SugarHouse purchased piers 49 and 50, adding nearly five acres to land north of the original site. This is what allowed the casino to “improve the design of the 2009 expansion plan,” the documents filed with the gaming board state.

“With the benefit of more than two years of operating history, a larger site, and input from the City of Philadelphia and its advisors as well as extensive feedback from SugarHouse customers, SugarHouse seeks Gaming Board approval to further modify its Phase 1A expansion to create a better plan and design with more amenities, which will maximize revenue to the Commonwealth and the City.”

When SugarHouse first brought its new expansion plans to the PCPC at an information-only session in September 2011, SugarHouse officials told the commission the proposal would have a smaller impact on the skyline.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger – who also chairs the PCPC – said back then that retaining surface parking was a good trade for reducing the height of the garage.

The existing expansion plans require SugarHouse to build a 3,200 space garage in one phase. Under this proposal, it would start with 1,500 spaces and expand as needed.

Commissioner Nancy Rogo-Trainer was not convinced that a shorter garage with continuation of most of the sites surface parking would have a smaller impact than a taller, narrow garage would. She said no when the commission voted that November.

The Central Delaware Advocacy Group, an organization of representatives from waterfront communities that advocates for the city’s vision for the Central Delaware, had urged all commissioners to vote no. Among the concerns raised in CDAG’s letter: “The large structured parking garage and sea of surface parking create a single use of parking that dominates the site.

There is no active street frontage with ground floor retail and commercial uses to enliven Delaware Avenue. The secondary uses of the site currently cannot be accessed without passing through the primary use. Also, the addition of the garage does not appear to reduce the amount of surface parking on the site.”

City Council took planning’s recommendations and approved related zoning changes in December 2011.

SugarHouse documents state the expansion project would employ between 750 and 1,000 workers during construction, and 450 people after the expansion is complete.

Casino spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said SugarHouse has no comment at this time.

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