By Thomas J. Walsh
As the Philadelphia City Planning Commission conducted today’s 1 p.m. special session – to publicly re-examine and approve the SugarHouse Casino plan of development (POD) as an amendment – anti-casino groups staged a small exhibition fueled by research released Tuesday by the watchdog group Common Cause of Pennsylvania.
The Common Cause report totaled $4.4 million in detailed political campaign contributions to Pennsylvania state and Philadelphia municipal elected officials (including Gov. Ed Rendell and former Mayor John Street) from gambling industry firms and executives, from 2001 through 2008 (PlanPhilly coverage: http://www.planphilly.com/node/9180).
Casino-Free Philadelphia spokeswoman Lily Cavanaugh, and Dave McKenna of the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition, in a press release Tuesday evening, noted “an additional $12.3 million from lawyers and lobbyists representing the casinos. The recipients of that money are names familiar to us all: Rendell and Street, Fumo and Perzel.”
Calling the redesign “horrendous” (the Planning Commission made the amended POD available to the public early last week), the groups said, “We fully expect the planning commission to rubber-stamp this design.”
The protest delivered two bags stuffed with "money" allegedly from some of the biggest financiers of casinos in Philly to the planning commission. meeting. The special session took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Meanwhile, sandwiched between the release Tuesday of the Common Cause report and its attendant press conference outside City Hall and Wednesday’s special session of the city Planning Commission, state legislators in Harrisburg were moving forward with a bill designed to make relationships between public officials and gaming officials less cozy.
Facing mounting criticism of the Commonwealth’s oversight of its burgeoning gambling business, the State Senate’s Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee unanimously approved a bill that would reinstate a ban on cash contributions to political causes by gambling interests.
Interviewed by the Associated Press, Sen. Jane Orie, an Allegheny County Republican and a major critic of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said, “I think it's a strong message, and I believe we're on the path to restoring public trust" in Pennsylvania’s gaming oversight.
The AP also reported that the 51-page bill “also would toughen the gaming board's ‘revolving door’ policy, requiring top- and mid-level employees to wait two years, instead of just one, before working in the industry. The policy also would cover lawyers, an aspect that may get scrutiny by the state Supreme Court, which reserves the regulation of lawyers for itself.”
Another bill making its way through both chambers of the state legislature would legalize table games at Pennsylvania’s eight casinos that are up and running. A ninth, in Pittsburgh, is due to open later this summer. That leaves Philadelphia’s planned casinos, SugarHouse and Foxwoods Philadelphia, as the only two left to open – if their state-licensed operators can break through the morass of approvals needed and get construction started amid the worst commercial real estate market in decades.
Plan of Development
Today’s session is to amend a POD already approved by the Planning Commission – albeit one with a very different make-up of commissioners – in May 2007. Specifically, it would amend the POD’s several subsequent modifications for the “Interim” and “Phase I” stages of the SugarHouse gaming hall.
The Planning Commission staff will recommend approval of the full amendment to the commissioners, with no provisos, a senior city official told PlanPhilly. The vote was for approval but was not unanimous.
One big change is that the size of the “promenade” has been reduced – and rather than use a deck surface, it would be on existing ground.
Perhaps the most controversial change for the first two stages of development is in plans for the casino’s front façade and land in front of the main structure, facing west. Originally approved with a porte-cochere entrance and open space, it would now consist of an open-air surface parking lot. SugarHouse says the change is necessary since a planned parking garage will not be built until Phase I, presumably to be financed on the back of Interim phase slots income.
There is also an amended provision for additional off-site parking on land just north of the SugarHouse site. No off-site parking was approved in the approved POD of two years ago.
The location of traffic lights at Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street would be moved south – to the 23-acre property’s entrance – in another piece of the amendment.
Oh and by the way
There was actually another item on the Planning Commission’s agenda for Wednesday: a zoning matter concerning 2116-32 Chestnut Street, where developer John Buck Co. wants to build a 30-story mixed-use tower.
The building would have 322 residential units and related spaces, along with more than 9,200 square feet of retail stores, some 44,000 square feet of office space and 119 above-grade parking spaces.
Currently a medical office building is on the site, and the new building would continue to have medical office tenants, the developer has told the Commission in previous presentations.
While the Planning Commission staff recommended approval, the commissioners want to use the time between the next PCPC meeting in July and a later Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting to allow for some more dialogue between the developer and nearby residents. One main point of contention is the placement of the 30 story tower on the site. The development would require City Council approvals and construction is not expected to start before the end of 2009.
A full report with video of the Wednesday meeting, and of whatever other activity takes place within or outside the Academy, will be posted later in the day.
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ON THE WEB:
Casino-Free Philadelphia: http://www.casinofreephila.org/events/2009/06/anti-casino-circus
SugarHouse Casino: http://www.sugarhousecasino.com/news/index.php