Fourteen months after receiving their license to operate a category 2 slot machine facility from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, Philadelphia Entertainment and Development Partners, L.P., got in front of City Council in order to proffer plans for a South Philadelphia casino called Foxwoods.
Monday marked the first of at least four day-long hearings before council's Committee on Rules regarding Commercial Entertainment District status and an in-depth explanation of the development plan for the proposed casino. At the heart of the proposed legislation are conditions established by council for the casino concern that have to be met before CED status is approved.
Monday, Foxwoods' legal team and consultants were grilled by council members primarily about the infrastructure and quality of life impact the development, which will put over 20,000 extra cars per day on neighboring streets, will bring to South Philadelphia. Of particular concern was the effect the casino traffic would have on the working port and its time sensitive trucking operations.
The closest thing to high drama came during the opening presentation by Foxwoods when councilman Jim Kenney told lead casino attorney Carl Primavera to stop answering questions council members were directing to Foxwoods consultants and reminded the attorney that council was in charge of the hearing.
The closest thing to hard news occurred during the presentation by Gary Jastrzab, acting director of the city planning commission.
Jastrzab was describing in detail the process through which the planning commission reviewed and approved the plan of development for Foxwoods. Council members, citing the positive position the Street administration took to the siting of the two waterfront casinos, recommended that the newly formed planning commission, headed by Andrew Altman (who also will direct the commerce departmant) should look over the Foxwoods' plan.
August '07: Planning Commission approves Foxwoods
Kenney and councilman Wilson Goode Jr. said Michael Nutter's emphasis on planning reform, made them both comfortable with the idea of having the new administration's planning department weigh in on the Foxwood's development proposal
That may be tricky.
City Council cannot just send the proposal back to the Planning Commission, said Douglas Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, because that would violate the procedure layed out in city ordinance. "Once the Planning Commission reviews a plan and makes a recommendation, City Council must either approve or reject it," Oliver said. They can't just send it back without a vote, he said. And the Mayor cannot call it back to the Planning Commission, either.
City council could reject Foxwood's plan, at which point the process would start all over again, Oliver said, and either the current version or a modified one would go back before the Planning Commission, Oliver said.
Nutter is not making any recommendations to Council, he said. "At this stage, it would be presumptuous of us to tell City Council what to do," he said.
Not so with the casino point of view.
"With all due respect to council, it is not reasonable to invalidate all decisions made by the prior planning commission," said Foxwoods Spokeswoman Maureen Garrity. "Will all developments approved by the prior commission be reevaluated, or just Foxwoods? Additionally, the planning commission heard hours of testimony, not only from Foxwoods, but also from residents for and against. They tabled a decision and heard a second full day of testimony before a decision was made. This plan was fully vetted and we expect to be able to move forward based on that commission's recommendation to council."
SugarHouse Casino spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker said there's no point in asking the Planning Commission to re-examine SugarHouse's plans. "The process Foxwoods is going through to get zoning, we're past that," she said. "Our site is zoned, based on our approved plan for development."
SugarHouse got its needed zoning from the Supreme Court, which ruled that City Council had been dragging its feet. The Court based its decision in part on the fact that SugarHouse's plans were approved and met the requirements of the ordinance, Whitaker said. "The Supreme Court declared it to be finally approved, and it does not require further action by City Council."
Councilman Frank DiCicco, in whose district two casinos would sit, said the State Supreme Court's Dec. 3 decision to grant Commercial Entertainment District zoning to SugarHouse – the city's other proposed casino – forced his hand.
"This is not an exercise in futility. Although I disagree, I have heard and have heeded the Supreme Court's opinion of council's failure to act on gaming matters. The introduction of this legislation is not a shift in my position," DiCicco said. "There is anxiety throughout neighborhoods and council must set reasonable conditions. I still have serious concerns about this project that must be addressed. These hearings will help guarantee that they are."
The conditions include a community benefits agreement, improvements to public safety and traffic congestion, an economic impact study for the surrounding area, a satisfactory agreement between the developer and the City and Council's approval of the city plan revisions necessary for the project. Those include rights-of-way for sewer/water purposes and a street that runs through the property. Foxwoods needs those city plan revisions to begin construction.
That last condition is a requirement for Foxwoods to obtain riparian rights – the right to build on state riverbed land – through the General Assembly.
Notes: the next meeting is March 10. The issue will be the Foxwoods' traffic study. ... DiCicco, who sits on the Convenstion Center board, made it clear that Convention Center expansion is not dependent on casino operations in the city. ... A nifty presentation about Special Services Districts, such as the stadium area setup, sort of fell flat when it became clear that Foxwoods and the civic associations were not talking to each other, a requirment for a healthy SSD. ... Testimony from Neighborhood Alliance members, representing citizens from throughout the city, challenged Foxwoods' statements that they have rights to develop the site and are the sole owners of the property and disputed the casino operators' argument that they did not revise the phasing portion of the development plan after it was initially presented to the Gaming Control Board.