Changing Skyline: Betting on Strawbridge

The Strawbridge & Clothier building in 2005. The 1928 art deco exterior by Simon & Simon is a protected landmark; lower floors have been vacant since the chain folded in 2006.
The Strawbridge & Clothier building in 2005. The 1928 art deco exterior by Simon & Simon is a protected landmark; lower floors have been vacant since the chain folded in 2006.
Posted: March 06, 2009

Foxwoods has become the oldest established permanent floating slots game in Philadelphia. Last fall, it ditched plans for a big-box casino on the Delaware waterfront and announced it would instead set up shop in the Gallery at Market East. Now comes word that the slots operator is eyeing the historic Strawbridge & Clothier building at Eighth and Market Streets.

Quick, someone! Calculate the odds on that.

They're not as bad as you might assume.

This latest switch, though, creates a strange predicament for the Nutter administration. How does Philadelphia prepare itself to become the largest U.S. city with casinos when it can't get a fix on the coordinates of its phantom slots parlor? Five months after signaling an interest in a Market Street location, Foxwoods has yet to show city officials a single architectural drawing of what its gaming hall might look like. Officials aren't even certain which architecture firm the company is using.

That hasn't stopped the city from moving full steam ahead on a $250,000 master plan for the ragged area around Market East, or lobbying for stimulus money to upgrade the transit infrastructure. The city's new casino consultant, Stan Eckstut of EE&K Architects, even presented his preliminary findings at a public forum last week. All his maps showed a little dot at 11th and Market Streets to identify Foxwoods, and it was clearly a starting point for his ideas.

But a day later, city officials inadvertently learned that Foxwoods was negotiating with the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) to install its slots parlor three blocks east, in Strawbridge's four empty retail floors. Couldn't Foxwoods have mentioned that detail before?

Apart from Foxwoods' secrecy (its officials didn't return my calls, either), the Strawbridge location offers a new set of possibilities for the city.

Of course, there are pitfalls, too. It's not clear that Foxwoods, which has been struggling financially, can be trusted to treat Strawbridge's soaring, columned interior with the respect it deserves. But because the 1928 art deco exterior by Simon & Simon is a protected landmark, the city would have the final word on signage, lighting, and the treatment of Strawbridge's brass-trimmed shop windows. The last thing Market Street needs is a casino version of the papered-over windows pioneered by the drugstore chains.

PREIT, which manages the Gallery, and city officials say they like the idea of having Foxwoods occupy Strawbridge's lower floors, which have been empty since the chain folded in 2006. Compared with the Gallery's 11th Street corner, which is occupied by other tenants, Strawbridge's is practically in move-in condition.

The more easterly location also has the advantage of removing the casino from the heart of Chinatown, which is vigorously opposed to slots. There would be less casino traffic on Chinatown's narrow streets, because it's a straight shot from the Vine Street Expressway to Eighth Street, and the store is surrounded by parking. And Strawbridge has a direct transit connection to Market East through the concourse.

It's true that moving Foxwoods to the gilded store would push it farther away from the Convention Center, which terminates at 11th Street, and move it closer to Independence Mall, at Sixth. But that might be turned to the city's advantage if Foxwoods could position itself as a true entertainment destination, offering more than just slots.

For years, the city has struggled to persuade conventioneers to stroll between the two tourist anchors. But as PREIT president Joseph F. Coradino acknowledges, visitors are put off by the Gallery's dull, concrete exterior and Market Street's general dowdiness. "The Gallery does a great job of defending itself against pedestrians," he deadpanned.

When Foxwoods first signaled its interest in the Gallery, PREIT saw an opportunity to freshen up the shopping mall, which has not been renovated since it opened in 1974. PREIT also had hoped to lease Strawbridge's retail space to Target. But the country's Great Recession has altered all expectations.

The Target deal appears dead, Coradino said. And there aren't many other big retailers interested in Philadelphia's downtown mall - or, for that matter, any other mall. Big mall operators are increasingly replacing retailers with restaurants. At PREIT's Plymouth Meeting Mall, he said, the four big-name restaurant chains together gross more than a traditional department-store anchor.

No wonder PREIT warmed to the idea of leasing its premier retail space to a slots parlor. Food and entertainment appear to be the future of shopping.

The challenge will be to keep Foxwoods from turning the great Strawbridge space into an inward-looking, energy-sapping fortress. Both Coradino and city planners say they envision a ring of restaurants around the perimeter of Strawbridge's ground floor, perhaps utilizing the shop windows to draw customers.

The ring of eateries also would help push the gaming floor deeper into the space, buffering it from the street. "The casino would be heavily submerged in the character of Strawbridge," insists city planning director Alan Greenberger.

Paco Underhill, a retail consultant and sociologist of the shopping mall, points out that slots and shopping happily coexist in Las Vegas, in venues such as the Forum Shops at Caesars. But Caesars probably doesn't have the crime issues that face the Gallery. "The only thing that concerns me," Underhill says, "is the policing issues. All those people with cash in their pockets."

Still, he likes the idea of livening up Market Street in the evening, when it goes into hibernation. "The Strawbridge location is as close to Monte Carlo as Market Street gets," he observes.

If only we could be certain that Foxwoods understood the possibilities.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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