City Council will spend this Thursday considering zoning legislation that would allow a casino to operate at The Gallery at Market East.
Council's Committee on Rules Saturday voted to send the two bills on to the full council after hearing five hours of public testimony that mostly urged them not to do so. Council scheduled the unprecedented Saturday hearing to allow more people to attend, and they got their wish: Chambers, including the balcony, were packed, as was an overflow room.
The protests actually started an hour before the 10 a.m. hearing. Hundreds of protestors marched from Chinatown to City Hall. "No Casinos! No Slots!" yelled the parents and children, college students and senior citizens as they marched down Market Street to the beat of colorful traditional drums. One city police officer estimated the throng was 1,000-people strong by the time it reached City Hall.
Foxwoods Casino officials are considering a move to The Gallery site, rather than building at their originally proposed Columbus Boulevard and Reed Street waterfront location - which also met with vehement public outcry and the opposition of Mayor Nutter, Councilman Frank DiCicco, and other city and state officials.
Rules Committee members and city planning officials said at the beginning of Saturday's hearing that adopting the legislation was nothing more than the start of a process that would allow a full public vetting of a new Foxwoods' proposal. All possible impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods, both positive and negative, would be fully explored before the Planning Commission and Council vote on whether or not to allow the casino to operate at The Gallery, they said.
Andrew Altman, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, testified that it was important for the city to consider a possible Market East location for Foxwoods because it could help revitalize a corridor that has lagged even as many other Philadelphia neighborhoods have flourished.
If the legislation does not pass, Foxwoods will move back to its original location, where the City would have much less input, thanks to a series of State Supreme Court decisions that left the casino with the zoning and nearly all of the permits it needs to operate there.
"If I pulled these two bills, some people would be happy, but Foxwoods would be on the waterfront," DiCicco said.
The majority of the audience was not appeased by the reasons they were given for going forward with the legislation.
They did not like the repeated requests that they keep their comments focused on the legislation at hand, and away from the larger issue of gaming itself. This was especially true of the activists who said that people of Asian decent are more vulnerable to gambling addiction. Many said they felt putting a casino in the heart of an Asian neighborhood was taking advantage of that pre-disposition. Several spoke of the impact of addiction problems in their own families, or those of friends or mental health clients they serve.
"Since when is it our public officials job to serve up a constituency to casinos?" Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, asked. "Do you see us as your citizens, or do you see us as targets?"
DiCicco urged those with concerns about the ills of gaming to take it up with the state legislature, because City Council could not prevent casinos from coming to Philadelphia.
Terry Gillen, special advisor to Mayor Nutter, described a scenario in which the state legislature and the Gaming Control Board had stripped the city of any power to affect the location. The legislature legalized gambling, she said, and then a group of gaming companies proposed locations to the Gaming Control Board, which selected the two waterfront sites.
Of Foxwoods, Gillen said, "It's really up to them. They are the ones in control of this right now."
These comments frustrated some in the audience, who said Foxwoods has been given too much power. A committee should be established to look for alternative locations, they said, and then the best of them should be offered to the casino.
Many who testified repeated a strain that has become familiar in all public meetings that have been held regarding the potential move: Please slow down. It seemed backwards to them that the city would consider a zoning change prior to receiving detailed plans from Foxwoods.
"I believe it is Foxwoods Casino that should start the process and not City Council," said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. To change the zoning without all information about the proposal in hand would be "sending the wrong message to Foxwoods," he said. "Foxwoods should be required to perform all the necessary studies on the feasibility of The Gallery relocation. Foxwoods should be required to perform all the necessary studies on its impact to Chinatown. Foxwoods should be required to show their business operation and market plan."
Top city planners assured the crowd there would be much time for fact gathering and rumination.
The first bill the committee sent on to Council amends the city's existing Commercial Entertainment District legislation in an attempt to make it more suitable for the dense neighborhood of the Market East corridor. The second would change the zoning of the portion of The Gallery that Foxwoods is considering. But that zoning change would not be effective unless and until the Planning Commission and City Council approve Foxwoods' plan of development, Altman said.
Several public hearings would be held before the plan is adopted - including at least one before Foxwoods' plan of development was finished, so that input could be incorporated into the final version, said Alan Greenberger, incoming executive director of the Planning Commission.
"If either the Planning Commission or City Council reject a proposed plan, this site is not reclassified," Greenberger said.
The passage of the CED legislation would show Foxwoods that the City will seriously consider their proposal to move to Market East, officials said, and without it, casino developers would not spend the money it will take to develop a plan.
But Casino-Free Philadelphia attorney Paul Boni said time was needed now to amend the CED legislation.
"The CED should be amended to require the slots parlor to close at a reasonable hour," Boni said. "The Gaming Act seems to allow the City to do this. Let's hold public hearings on it and build a record."
Foxwoods' chief operating officer James Dougherty testified that "passage of this legislation will give us, as developers, the confidence to invest millions more to continue to evaluate this location."
Committee members had no questions for Dougherty.
When asked of the status of Foxwoods' plans for The Gallery, spokeswoman Maureen Garrity, who was sitting in the audience, said she had nothing to report, because the passage of the zoning was "the first step."
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