Wynn project could shake up Phila. waterfront

Some say Steve Wynn's plan would alter its Fishtown neighborhood's character.
Some say Steve Wynn's plan would alter its Fishtown neighborhood's character.
Posted: April 08, 2013

Where North Beach Street twists and turns into Richmond Avenue in Fishtown, the old William Cramp & Sons shipyard has been the envy of developers and dreamers alike.

It's 60 open acres of Delaware River waterfront, a vast blank canvas.

And the man with all the paintbrushes is Las Vegas resort-and-casino developer Steve Wynn.

Two weeks ago, Wynn finally released his plan for developing the site. Local reaction has run hot and cold.

Everyone agrees that the Wynn project could be a game-changer for the waterfront, finally giving purpose to land that has been idle since after World War II.

But the biggest concern is whether his ideas will conform with the civic vision for the waterfront that began taking shape five years ago.

When Wynn emerged as a contender for the city's second casino, he offered only a sketch of a proposed 19-story hotel, rising above the pedestal of a casino. Calling the project a resort with a casino - rather than a casino with a hotel - Wynn promised lots of other attractions, including a spa, meeting space, restaurants, and a nightclub inside; and a riverfront walkway, skating rink, amphitheater, park space, and caf├ęs outside.

But the most striking design feature - bound to draw the most debate - is a proposed 20-acre parking lot with a green roof that would surround the hotel-casino.

The topic came up at Thursday's meeting of the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, an umbrella organization for 21 groups that advocate for the city's master plan for the waterfront. Representatives of Wynn Resorts gave the group its first look at the site plan.

"You're wasting a lot of land just for cars," said Robert Kettell, a representative of the Old City Civic Association.

Matt Ruben, chair of CDAG, called Wynn's design for a public trail along the waterfront "fantastic," but said the plan calls for very little open space on the southern end of the property.

Rene Goodwin, another CDAG member, pointed out to the Wynn team that Philadelphia has a different "urban life" than Las Vegas and is more a walking city than a driving one. "It may be a different paradigm for you, but it could be an interesting one," she said.

In a phone interview from Las Vegas on Thursday, Wynn said he decided to put all the parking on one level as a convenience to customers. Whether bound for the casino, restaurants, hotel, or River Walk, patrons could drive to their destination, he said.

For customers, "ground-level parking makes it totally convenient to drive to the part of the project that they want to enjoy," he said. "In a drive-in market, access is everything."

The heated facility, he explained, would not be a "clunky garage sticking out."

"The reason you don't see the garage," Wynn said, "is it's surrounded by trees and it's dropped about two or three feet below grade."

The proposed green roof, meanwhile, would be the most expansive of its kind in Philadelphia. He said it was meant as a green design feature for customers sitting by windows at second-floor restaurants or meeting rooms.

The public, however, will not be able to walk on the roof. "I don't want people wandering through the restaurant garden when someone is having dinner there," Wynn said.

Wynn Philadelphia would encompass an area three times the size of the current Penn's Landing area. With its emphasis on the car, the design would run counter to the ideals of the central Delaware plan, said Harris Steinberg, founding executive director of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design.

"It's not about the car," Steinberg said.

A goal of the waterfront master plan, he said, is to enliven street-level activity with retailing and dining, as well as encourage public transportation in favor of car-dependent projects that require acres of surface parking.

In 2007, Mayor John F. Street hired PennPraxis to engage the public in discussions on what they wanted for the waterfront. A master plan was created, followed by a temporary zoning overlay that sets standards for such things as building height, street-level space uses, and set-asides for public space.

But if the Wynn project wins the city's second casino license, it would require special zoning as an entertainment project. That designation would override the new zoning rules proposed for the waterfront. "It trumps everything," said Ruben, the CDAG chairman.

Wynn, for instance, would not be constrained by height limitations for his hotel tower.

Tom Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., a nonprofit group that acts as a steward for the city for waterfront development, said there were aspects of the Wynn site that "look promising."

Among them: a "significant" park on the northern edge of property and a continuous, 50-foot-wide trail that would follow the contours of the waterfront.

The Design Advocacy Group, however, gave the Wynn project low marks. In a report card on the six casino proposals, the group for design professionals last week suggested that rather than a 20-acre parking area, "a much better solution would be to extend the gracious parklike entry around the hotel and casino and extend it to the river, creating a true park setting that would actually be usable by casino guests and the public."

A multistory garage, the group said, would open up the site even more for green space."

"People want a 15-story parking garage?" asked A.J. Thomson, a longtime Fishtown resident who belongs to several neighborhood civic groups and endorses the site. "I don't think he's going to do anything less than his best," Thomson said of Wynn.

"Only in Philadelphia," he added, "would we even be debating whether to have Steve Wynn."

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.

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