By Kellie Patrick Gates
Over the objection of neighborhood activists, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission Tuesday recommended that City Council approve two pieces of legislation that would allow a casino to operate at The Gallery at Market East.
As the vote was taken, activists from Chinatown, Society Hill and Washington Square West urged members to say no to the proposal. They fear a casino would lead to problems with gambling addiction, traffic and crime. "Do the right thing!" some yelled.
Prior to the vote, commission member Natalia Olson de Savyckyj asked whether Foxwoods would make a presentation to the Commission. She also said it was unwise to amend the existing CED legislation, thus complicating the zoning code, and it would be better to take the time to start from scratch.
Commissioner Nilda Iris Ruiz had earlier asked why the Commission was voting without more details from Foxwoods on its plans for the site. She said before the vote that her agreement to recommend passage to City Council was contingent on the vote being only the gateway to more discussion.
City staffers advised the Commission to recommend that Council approve the bills, because doing so finalized nothing, but began the discussion and investigation of Foxwood casino's potential move from its proposed Delaware River site to The Gallery.
"The purpose of the two bills is to enable a closer, more detailed review of a proposal that doesn't exist yet," said Alan Greenberger, the vice-chair of the Commission who will soon become its executive director. "We are not approving anything."
Greenberger said he had heard community concerns during previous community forums and the Commission would expect Foxwoods' proposal to address them. This would include the social impacts on the nearby neighborhoods, including gambling addiction problems and crime, economic impacts, and the effect the casino would have on traffic and parking.
Greenberger said there is an assumption that The Gallery site would not create as much new automotive traffic as the waterfront site, because Market East is a public transit hub. But this could not be taken for granted, he said.
"We don't have the answers to these things yet," he said.
Greenberger showed photos of some of the Gallery's current blank walls. He would want any new proposal to improve the connection between the structure and the street, he said.
First District City Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced the legislation last week in response to Foxwoods' interest in the site. Taken together, the two bills would result in changing The Gallery's zoning from C-5 - the densest of the city's commercial zones - to Commercial Entertainment District. But a difference in the geographic boundaries contained in the two bills added a new concern for some in the audience: Was the City trying to leave room to add more casinos in the future?
The bill which would change the Gallery's zoning to CED says it would apply to the area bordered by Market, Filbert, 11th and 10th. But the bill that creates this CED classification - an amended version of the one already created for the waterfront sites - lists the boundaries as Broad, 6th, Chestnut and Arch.
Rosanne Loesch, a board member of the Society Hill Civic Association, asked about the discrepancy during the public comment period.
Gary J. Jastrzab, the Commission's acting executive director, said the broader dimensions are "the area in which a CED can be mapped" but the actual mapping would only be placed on the 1000 block of Market Street.
Another casino operator could ask to get another parcel zoned CED within the broader designation, Jastrzab said, but they would need another bill introduced by City Council. Loesch quipped that a bill didn't seem like such a hard thing to come by.
Deputy Mayor and Commission Chairman Andy Altman pointed out that the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board would also have to approve a license for a third casino in Philadelphia.
Paul Boni, attorney for the anti-casino group Casino-Free Philadelphia, asked why the city would create CED legislation with such a broad footprint "to hold out the opportunity for other casinos."
Altman ended the public comment period before anyone answered Boni, who had already spoken earlier.
When he later took a short break from the meeting, Altman said the city is not trying to create a casino belt. To create a zoning classification that applies only to one site would be spot zoning, he said.
"I'm not concerned about it," Altman said of the larger swath of city included in the CED classification legislation. He said there are many "protections" - layers of approval - that any casino operator would have to get through before operating a casino. The mapping - the actual changing of a chunk of land to a CED, is what matters here, he said - and that's only between 10th and 11th, Market and Filbert.
The City has also been trying to persuade its other proposed casino, SugarHouse, to move off of the waterfront. City officials have not asked SugarHouse to consider a site near The Gallery, Altman said. But if SugarHouse wanted to move there, their proposal would be considered, he said.
SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker, who was in the Planning Commission audience, also said the city has not approached SugarHouse about moving to that area. And even if they did, she said, it won't happen. "We are not entertaining conversations about moving." SugarHouse has proposed a re-design to fit in better with the city's long-range plans for the waterfront.
When recommending that the Commission send a recommendation for approval to Council, zoning planner Marty Gregorski said that passage would allow city officials to continue to negotiate with Foxwoods "in good faith" and "give the developer the confidence to move forward" with detailed plans for the proposal, which are costly and time consuming. "These are the first steps in a long process," he said.
City officials, including DiCicco and Mayor Michael Nutter, have previously made statements to the same effect - the CED is needed before a proposal can be considered.
Those who oppose The Gallery site have questioned why this is so. Couldn't a plan of development be considered without the CED legislation?
Greenberger said that yes, a plan could be considered without the CED. But he doesn't think Foxwoods would develop a plan unless city leaders take this step.
Foxwoods already has a CED and most of the permits it needs to begin construction at its waterfront location, and city officials have suggested that if Foxwoods doesn't get to build at The Gallery, it will go back to its originally planned site. (At the press conference where Foxwoods' potential move to The Gallery was announced, Michael Thomas, Chairman of the Manshantucket Pequot Tribal Nation - the 30 percent owner of Foxwoods - said he would be willing to consider other sites if The Gallery didn't work out.)
Boni, during his first set of comments, said he did not believe passage of the CED was necessary to persuade Foxwoods to submit a plan of development. Foxwoods knows the city administration is opposed to the waterfront site, he said, and the company would save a lot of money by using an existing structure rather than building from the ground up. Boni also said he worried that if city officials eventually decided The Gallery was not the right place for Foxwoods, but a CED had been created, the state Supreme Court could step in and grant Foxwoods the power to move forward. The Court has already ordered the waterfront sites of Foxwoods and SugarHouse be zoned CED.
Next up in the on-going casino saga: City Council will hold a public hearing on the CED proposals at 10 a.m., Nov. 1 in Council Chambers at City Hall. The first reading of the legislation will take place at the Nov 6 Council meeting, and it will be up for second reading and final approval on Nov. 13.
In other action, the Commission recommended that City Council approve plans to convert the former Schmidt’s Brewery at Girard Avenue and Second Street into a mixed development that would include 16- and 26-story residential towers with 600 residential units, a 40,000-square-foot park, a new street (Van Horn), a grocery store and retail shops facing Girard.
Developer Bart Blatstein will also need the blessing of the Zoning Board of Appeals, however. Variances would be required to locate residences within a shopping center and build towers as tall as proposed.