By Thomas J. Walsh
Amid the discussions coming out of a three-day PennPraxis workshop addressing the designs of the two proposed Delaware Riverfront casinos, there were some veritable positive vibes about the gaming halls, especially from a California architect with casino experience in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
While pointing out what he considered “gigantic” parking garages, both the SugarHouse and Foxwoods casinos would be “actually an amenity to do what you want to do, which is to bring people to the riverfront,” said Tim Magill, a Hollywood architect who has worked with gaming magnates like Steve Wynn and on high-profile projects like the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
“Thinking about how development can happen north and south of both of these sites is an important aspect” of the casinos’ plans, Magill said. “On both sites ... there is potential for major public access. By minor modifications [from the casino developers], you could deliver on your goals.”
Those goals comprise the 10-step civic action plan laid out by PennPraxis for the central Delaware waterfront for the next decade. But Magill was laying out facts about the gaming industry around the country – that, if developed in a smart fashion, casinos can be leveraged to pull in the public and increase surrounding property values.
After the morning session, Magill pointed to an example on a large map, among many views of the river pinned to the walls. He told PlanPhilly that one site, now the home of Wal-Mart and Home Depot (and their accompanying mega-parking lots), would probably be redeveloped, since it sits directly south of the Foxwoods site. The big box stores represent “property values that have not been fully realized,” he said. “The developers know that. What they’ve done is sort of land-banked it” with the retail chains serving as an interim means of cash flow.
It’s about the vision
The workshop, with a couple of dozen city representatives and experts on traffic, transit, environmental and ecological matters, got started Tuesday night, with the group concluding that the two casinos are not currently compatible with the “civic values, principles and design guidelines” put forth in the Praxis vision of a redeveloped waterfront. (See previous story from earlier this morning here: http://www.planphilly.com/node/3607.)
The presidents of both casinos declined invitations to the workshop from Harris Steinberg, executive director of Praxis, in strongly worded replies (see Foxwoods' and SugarHouse's) that said their presence would be pointless, since Steinberg had stated publicly several times that he and Praxis were against the casinos ever breaking ground.
But Steinberg stressed that he’s not anti-casino, and that Tuesday evening’s conclusion that the casinos were incompatible meant “only as currently designed.” His goal, he said, is to tease out how these projects, on these sites, can contribute to the overall Praxis vision and action plan, endorsed last month by Mayor Nutter.
That’s what Steinberg charged a smaller afternoon group to come up with. Magill started that process by laying see-through drawing paper over the Foxwoods site and marking up areas where, for instance, retail could replace parking garage facades, or spots that seemed realistic as possibilities for more vertical development. With a few “minor modifications,” Magill said, the casinos could be “activity generators that will prime the pump for other properties” down the line.
“Casinos are highly public,” Magill assured the attendees. “The key is to optimize the public’s access to the river. I actually think you’re on your way.”
‘No man’s land’
But before that happy scenario can play out, there are infrastructure questions galore, not the least of them having to do with parking and the importance of incorporating the casinos’ plans for extending existing streets to the riverfront, along with the opportunity to stress impacts to the environment, from the new buildings themselves and from the traffic they bring to the problematic Columbus Boulevard (also known as Delaware Avenue), which Steinberg called a “no man’s land” for pedestrians.
“By what criteria do they contribute?” Steinberg said was the main question underlying the workshop. “Tim [Magill] is saying they could be, but not necessarily that they will be. The real concern is that there is clearly not a parking solution. And we’re going to push back hard to see where things fall in terms of the civic vision. We’re here in an advisory capacity.”
Steinberg said he’d like to deliver a report on the group’s findings by Friday, Aug. 8.
Even with the parking question, which dominated the afternoon session, Magill posited some California optimism, suggesting that encouraging bus transportation and off-site “employee parking pods” would actually enhance sustainability and a transit-oriented boulevard.
Ecological and environmental concerns were aired before lunch, with the theme of “honoring the river.” Using the water in the best way and protecting the estuary were main points. Mark Alan Hughes, the city’s first Deputy Mayor of Sustainability, admitted that any recommendations on these fronts would be “aspirational” at this point.
“We just want to know where they are,” Hughes said. “There can be no deal-breakers. There are tools [related to energy and emissions] that are just not there yet. We have a set of mechanisms that we are working toward.”
Waiting and seeing
Terry Gillen, senior adviser to Mayor Nutter for economic development and the interim executive director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority, said the most significant issues have to do with air quality, within the context of traffic and parking. “It’s a very car-centric industry, at least in the U.S.” she said of the casino business. “In Europe, they have a different model.”
Magill also said that modern casinos have been increasingly moving toward maximizing spaces for non-gaming activities, such as nightclubs and spas. Indeed, the state of Nevada reached a point several years ago when non-gambling revenues surpassed the total “take” from slots and table games, a trend that has only increased.
The proposed Philadelphia casinos are said to be “mixed-use” from the start, and attendees at the afternoon workshop wanted to make sure of that. But subsequent phases of development, contingent upon the success of the initial building phases (with 2,500 slots for each casino) have been a consistent concern among city officials since Nutter took office earlier this year.
Foxwoods and SugarHouse have had an entirely different relationship with City Hall since the change in administrations, and contend that permits have been intentionally stalled by order of Nutter. They cite nothing but favorable decisions from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and the state Supreme Court.
“There have been at least five different traffic studies, including ones by the Mayor’s Gaming Advisory Task Force, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, SugarHouse, Foxwoods, and the City Council,” according to information on the SugarHouse web site.
“I can only hope that we can come up with some decisions that they’ll look at,” said Gillen. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
On the Foxwoods web site, the owners say the casino “supports the city’s long-term goal of economically reinvigorating the remainder of the riverfront, and will provide public access to the river.” For its first-phase development, it lists restaurant and lounge venues open to the public, fine dining, sports bars, a 2,000-seat showroom, retail shops, a 4,200-space parking garage and a riverside walkway, in addition to the 3,000 slot machines.
The Philadelphia problem
Regarding the possibility of later phases of development, with a large hotel and more casino space, Gillen said that’s historically been “the Philadelphia problem. Developers come in and tend not to put all their cards on the table, and don’t tell us about future plans. We want to make sure there are no surprises down the road. The problem is that no one talked about that issue until January.”
Gillen said nailing down long-term plans is especially important from the city’s point of view because only when the later developments – the hotels, restaurants, nightclubs – become reality will the city see tax revenues. For the first phase, which will mostly be income from slot machines, the state will be the beneficiary.
Paul Levy, the popular president of the Center City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corp., said developing master plans is vital for setting guidelines for major developments, but he may have surprised some attendees by suggesting that with regard to the casinos, “the horse” is “out of the barn, or partially out of the barn.”
“These casinos started the design process, and we as a city are trying to change the rules,” Levy said. “The development of a master plan is absolutely essential. ... We’ve all got to realize that we’re playing catch-up.”
In less direct terms, others agreed, saying recommendations on street landscaping, balance of retail with gaming, the creation or reduction of traffic lanes, pedestrian metrics, access to the river, ecological concessions, safety and any other concerns – broad in scope or narrow – should be offered as an opportunity to implement smarter growth along the waterfront.
“This is a neutral analysis,” Steinberg said, as the afternoon session started. “The report that’s issued will be used as a political tool by various constituencies, so it’s important to be sure about ‘What would it look like for a casino on that site to comply?’” with the Praxis vision and Action Plan.
In the meantime, Magill said that in his experience, casino developers usually listen to well thought-out alternatives, if only to see if they would make financial sense. Also, trends in the gaming industry have been drifting toward smaller “neighborhood casinos,” even in the Las Vegas and Reno metropolitan areas, Magill said (relatively speaking, SugarHouse and Foxwoods are not considered especially large gaming destinations). These venues have generally placed interactivity with their neighbors as a high priority, even when initially opposed.
After the workshop’s findings are written up and presented to Nutter, what then? Looking at large-scale, detailed maps taking up the better part of two large walls, peppered with post-it notes and varying computer-generated images, Steinberg was asked if he thought one or both or neither of the proposed and state-approved casinos will have broken ground a year from now.
It might have been a question he’s heard before. “I’m not a betting man,” he said, without batting an eye.
SugarHouse web site: http://www.sugarhousecasino.com/home/index.php
Foxwoods web site: http://www.foxwoods.com/AboutFoxwoods/FDC_foxwoodsphiladelphia.aspx