By Kellie Patrick Gates
Neighborhood residents and business owners crowded into the cafeteria at the Holy Redeemer School at 9th and Vine Streets Thursday for a raucous meeting on the possible move of Foxwoods Casino from the Delaware riverfront to The Gallery at Market East.
The meeting was called to give the community a chance to express their opinions and ask questions about the gaming venue and how it would impact Chinatown, Washington Square West, and other nearby areas. A panel of casino representatives and elected officials sat at the front of the room. But the crowd did most of the talking. And chanting and yelling sometimes, too.
Frank DiCicco, the city councilman who represents Chinatown, announced to the crowd of more than 400 that he will next week introduce legislation that would create a Commercial Entertainment District for a Foxwoods' casino at Market East. Without that zoning designation, a casino cannot operate there.
The crowd booed, hissed, and demanded that DiCicco "stand with us!" Some asked why he would refuse to submit the CED legislation for casinos on the waterfront, but was willing to submit it for Chinatown.
Amid frequent interruptions, DiCicco tried to explain. His past decisions to withhold the legislation, and not to negotiate with the casino developers, had been mistakes, he said. When the city did not consider the CED on its own, the casinos went to the State Supreme Court, and the court forced the city to grant the CED. This took power and say-so away from the city, he said.
DiCicco and State Rep. Mike O'Brien told the crowd that they would rather not have casinos in Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter feels the same way, his advisor Terry Gillen said. But the reality of the General Assembly's vote and 13 state Supreme Court decisions, they said, is that Philadelphia will have two casinos - it's just a matter of where.
Meeting goers were not appeased. If anything, the words seemed to fire them up even more.
They wanted the city officials and politicians present to understand that they did not want any gaming hall in their neighborhood – or anyplace in Philadelphia – because they fear the societal impacts of gambling will outweigh any economic benefits.
And they did not believe the elected officials at the table were powerless against the General Assembly and the Supreme Court.
Some of the elected leaders mentioned that there are Chinatown residents and business owners who support the casino. If any attended the meeting, they remained silent.
The Foxwoods officials present also mostly remained silent. But they joined the elected officials in telling the crowd that the potential move was not a done deal. Brian Ford, president of Washington Philadelphia Investors LLP said that when he told Center City business leaders this week he hoped the casino would open by December 2009, he was only giving a target date, and a lot would have to happen to make that real. "Before any of that can happen, we have to design the plans, we need zoning, we need community agreements," he said.
"We are here to begin the process," said Foxwoods-Philadelphia President and Chief Operating Officer James Dougherty. "We are hear to listen." He was booed.
The politicians said they know a casino can bring problems, but they will work to see that any that come are alleviated through a community benefits agreement. O'Brien described the proposal as having both "promises and pitfalls"
Mayor Nutter, the city's top planners, DiCicco and O'Brien see some of the same promises: The move would keep Foxwoods off of the waterfront - a place they say could be better used in other ways. It could be a catalyst to ignite growth and development along East Market Street.
DiCicco said last night that a Gallery-based casino would likely have fewer traffic issues because it would take advantage of an on-the-spot public transportation center.
Others see positives, too:
Officials at the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust - which leases the Gallery and is working with architects and engineers to develop the casino design - believe the casino could meld with their earlier plans to revamp The Gallery. They dream of more street access and a blend of shops and restaurants that would attract not only casino goers, but would entice others to come to The Gallery.
For Foxwoods - and Governor Ed Rendell, who needs casino revenue to offset taxes - the move to a site the city appears to like means the possibility of a quicker opening.
The possible move has also been welcomed - at least in concept - by members of the design community, including the Design Advocacy Group, and by the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation - the business and advocacy part of the Center City District.
Cheung now lives in South Philadelphia, but she worries that other Chinatown families will go what she has gone through. "I'm scared," she said.
"I understand," DiCicco said. "You know why I understand? My father took his life because of a gambling addiction."
O'Brien said he, too, understood. "My father was a compulsive gambler. I know what it's like to go to bed hungry at night."
O'Brien said that casinos were definitely coming to Philadelphia, though. All that can be done is working hard to make sure there's a social safety net in place.
Some of the concerns and complaints might sound very familiar to those following Philadelphia's casino saga.
Similar issues have been raised by the community groups and anti-casino activists who have rallied against the originally planned, riverfront sites of Foxwoods and the other casino planned for Philadelphia, SugarHouse.
Leaders of Casino-Free Philadelphia attended the meeting, although their members were not out in force. While they would prefer no casinos in town, they are pushing for laws requiring them to be at least 1,500 feet away from residential neighborhoods.
The Philadelphia Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of 27 neighborhood groups that forged together to fight the original casino sites, supports that buffer. They have not, however, taken a position on The Gallery site for Foxwoods. PNA did not, as an organization, attend the meeting.
"We're just really letting the process happen," said PNA spokeswoman Rene Goodwin late Thursday morning. "There are a lot of issues here, and it would be premature for us to do anything other than to let the process - hopefully a reasonable process - unfold."
Goodwin said PNA hopes that process "is more inclusive of the community as a result of our two and a half years of insisting on that."
The city and state officials promised the crowd that the process would be open, thorough and not rushed.
DiCicco will introduce the CED legislation in an open Council session next Thursday, Oct. 16, he said. There will be a public hearing at City Hall on Saturday, Nov. 1. A Saturday was chosen so that everyone could attend, DiCicco said.
On Oct. 21, the city's Planning Commission will discuss the Foxwoods proposal.
Foxwoods is still working on the details of that proposal, spokeswoman Maureen Garrity said.
O'Brien said after the meeting that many of those details would need to be worked out by Oct. 21, so the Planning Commission has something to discuss.
The push for casino relocation gained momentum in July, when Sen. Vince Fumo and Rep. Dwight Evans announced they had united to convince, or force, the casinos to move. Shortly after that, Rendell said he, too, would get involved, because the "political climate" had changed.
In September, a cadre of elected officials and Foxwoods' chief investors, announced that meetings had yielded The Gallery location.
No re-siting meeting has yet taken place with SugarHouse, although the governor says one will happen as soon as schedules allow. But SugarHouse officials have told the city they are working on a new design - one that would better fit in with the city's long-range vision for the waterfront.
So far, SugarHouse remains firmly committed to its Delaware Avenue location, and the mayor and his team say they are interested in seeing them leave it, not build something with a different design. Both sides say they are always willing to talk.
FULL STORY TO FOLLOW