PennPraxis: Phila. casino sites won't work

Posted: August 09, 2008

No amount of tinkering with the designs of Philadelphia's two proposed casinos could make them compatible with the city's new vision for the Delaware River waterfront, according to a report delivered yesterday to Mayor Nutter by PennPraxis.

Adjustments could make them fit better but not fully, said the urban design consultants affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Suburban-style developments like the casinos would be "incompatible with a civic vision of a dense, walkable urban extension of Philadelphia to the river's edge," said Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis.

The 62-page report offers more details than early recommendations on why the casino projects are not right for the waterfront. In June, Nutter endorsed the conclusions of PennPraxis but requested a detailed analysis.

Speaking for Nutter, senior adviser Terry Gillen said the city Planning Commission would need to study the report. "We have to figure out what it tells us," she said.

Gillen said, "The next step includes a conversation with the casino folks about their locations and design issues."

Gov. Rendell said in June that he would convene a meeting of all those involved. Gary Miller, a spokesman for Rendell, said that nothing had been scheduled but the governor remained committed to the idea.

PennPraxis brought in a team of national consultants to review the projects with local officials and experts.

Steinberg said the team concluded that the developers - Foxwoods and SugarHouse - have designs that follow a suburban model. "They are very large footprint buildings with large parking structures," he said.

"The waterfront vision is about connectivity, water access and urban amenities, and there's a tension there," he said.

Maureen Garrity, a spokeswoman for the Foxwoods casino, said the company had not received a copy of the report.

"We won't be commenting on it today. We haven't read through it," Garrity said.

SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker also had no immediate comment. "We are in receipt of the report and will review accordingly," she said in an e-mail.

To make the casinos more compatible with the civic vision, the team recommended:

Creating streets to access the property.

Reducing by half the amount of on-site parking.

Improving connections to public transit.

Reducing the scale of the projects by spreading gaming activities over more buildings.

Creating vertical gaming floors.

Breaking up big-block buildings or parking garages by adding uses like ground-floor retailing.

The report also looked at the impact of the casino projects on 10 goals of the waterfront plan.

The civic vision includes the creation of a seven-mile, continuous trail for walking or biking. But the report noted that while the casinos would offer public access to the river, they did not set aside a 100-foot-wide easement for a trail.

One of the areas most at odds with the civic vision is traffic management. The report said that plans to add left-turn-only lanes to accommodate casino traffic would have a "detrimental" impact on the goal of keeping Delaware Avenue to four lanes with new rail transit.

The report includes intriguing drawings that show how the projects could be opened up to make the river more accessible to the public from Columbus Boulevard or Delaware Avenue.

Both casinos repeatedly have rejected moving their sites. Rendell has reiterated that there is nothing the city or state can do to force them.

Gillen, who participated in last month's PennPraxis workshop, said the report helps clarify city concerns regarding the current design and siting of casinos in South Philadelphia and an area straddling Northern Liberties and Fishtown.

"We're not being obstructionists," Gillen said. "We have legitimate concerns, and this report lays some of it out."

The experts said the casinos are designed around business models that call for 5,000 slot machines and necessitate big buildings, big garages and blank walls.

In addition, the report said the odds were low that the projects would include a "significant mix of uses" at the street level - like shops, restaurants or services.

"These challenges lead to a conclusion that casinos of this program-type do not work on these sites, and by extension would be better sited elsewhere," the report said.

The report concluded that if the riverfront vision was to move forward, it would need the cooperation and commitment of the city, the state and the development community.


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin

at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

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