May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino

Two nights ago, I went to an open house hosted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, showcasing the six proposals for the second Philadelphia casino license. That license has been up for grabs since the collapse of the South Philadelphia Foxwoods proposal slated for the Delaware waterfront at Reed Street. Casinos in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia neighborhoods, are a controversial subject, but one I have a personal and professional interest in. But since this is not my personal blog, things like which casino operator would be best for me, or the relative merits of legalized gambling regimes, are far off topic.  Fortunately, this process is providing ample grist for transportation nerds and urbanist advocates as well as professional gamblers.

First, a brief aside about who should care about casino transportation. There are, broadly speaking, three categories of people in a casino: workers, casual visitors, and frequent visitors. Casinos are traditionally designed around catering to the needs of the frequent visitors, and while I can attest to that bias being flattering on occasion, it’s not remotely optimal when it comes to transportation planning. Workers and casual visitors will make up the vast majority of the people who will arrive and leave on any given day, and the more prosocial the casino is designed to be, the more overwhelmingly true this will be. In response to this, the industry norm is to oversupply a casino with parking, and to treat parking as a loss leader. Needless to say, such an approach is potentially disastrous in a dense urban environment like Philadelphia. Context is not merely important; context is everything.

Also, good pro-urban casino design is not a hopeless cause. Casino gaming peacefully coexists with some of the most vibrant urban spaces in the world. The clearest examples are in the United Kingdom, which has 139 casinos operating in the country — most in urban settings, and 24 in London alone. And even if you don’t believe in the possibility of positive impact, there is clearly a possibility of greater negative impact, if design goes malignant. Ensconced at the other end of the livability spectrum are our neighbors in Atlantic City, where the casinos are a cancer on the urban setting, turning their backs — in the form of blank walls, loading docks, and parking garages — on the remainder of the city inland of Pacific Avenue, and disrupting or destroying entire sectors of the urban economy.

Fortunately for the brevity (hahaha) of this post, three of the six proposals (Casino Revolution, Live! Hotel and Casino, and Hollywood Casino Philadelphia) are functionally identical, located in South Philadelphia near the Sports Complex, in the quadrangle formed by 10th Street, Packer Avenue, Front Street, and Pattison Avenue. While that may seem like a boon to city residents, especially compared to the locations of Sugar House, Parx, Harrah’s Philadelphia, and Valley Forge Casinos, each of which must either be driven to or accessed by bus, the proximity to the Sports Complex is misleading. Even though every Philadelphia home game has a crowd full of fans who took the traditional ride down the Broad Street Line to Pattison AT&T Station, there are even more who drove in and parked in the oceans of asphalt surrounding each of the stadia. As I’ve heard it put, “the secret genius of the [Sports Complex] is that it allows suburbanites from all directions to drive in on highways, park, watch a game, then drive home again, without ever once having to interact with [a city neighborhood].” The proposed casino locations are, if anything, even more reliant on this kind of market, being located further away from the subway than the stadia, and not generating the kinds of crowds that allow sports fans on foot to overwhelm the car-centric design of Pattison Avenue by sheer force of numbers. As for any kind of shuttle service, it is noteworthy that, while SugarHouse runs shuttles to and from both Center City and South Philadelphia, it does not run shuttles to connect to the Frankford El a mere half-mile away. In short, these three proposals are exactly the opposite of good pro-urban design, primarily concerned with being at the confluence of highways, I-76 and I-95 being as good as any other two.

At the other end of the production value scale from the three South Philadelphia proposals is the Wynn Philadelphia, proposed by casino magnate and Penn alumnus Steve Wynn for the Delaware waterfront in Fishtown. While Wynn is expert at creating high-end casino resort experiences, and his presentation to the Gaming Control Board caused a considerable splash, the sprawling 54 acre site on the Fishtown waterfront gives him a steep hole to climb out of. At that presentation, Wynn himself made several interesting statements. He described Atlantic City as “the enemy”, indicating that he intends to aim to become the regional gaming leader and dethrone the Borgata; OK, that much is obvious to anyone with a pulse. He also described his location in Fishtown as 10 minutes from 30th Street Station; that might be true at 4:00 in the morning, but nobody in their right mind would rely on that travel time. Finally, he described the casino industry as a “driving business”, as justification for ignoring transit and pedestrian access; as someone who walked into Wynn’s flagship casino in Las Vegas from the Strip-facing pedestrian entrance more often than I ever did through the parking garage, I have no idea what he’s talking about.

Wynn’s proposal is Corbusian in its layout; it is literally a tower in a park. Granted, that park is constructed by decking over “35 to 40 acres” of what would otherwise be surface parking, with a green roof, giving the parking alone a larger footprint than the total area of any other proposal. A “water taxi dock” juts out into the Delaware with no walkway back to the building; I suspect greenwashing. I couldn’t find a site rendering or plan online, but the fact that the rendering I saw last night for the Fishtown site is superficially identical to this proposal for Everett, MA, does not fill me hope that there has been much, if any, site-specific planning. Finally, Fishtown is still licking its wounds over its failure to keep Sugar House out, but I doubt that has cooled the tempers of its anti-casino activists. Wynn has never really come clean over why he backed out of being Foxwoods’ financial white knight in South Philadelphia. At the time, he cited the high construction costs imposed by our unionized construction trades; nothing about that has changed in the last three years. There is nothing holding Steve Wynn to anything he’s saying this time around, and the things that are making his proposal palatable are the things that will be most quickly axed at the first sign of budget overruns. If he aims to kill Atlantic City, he needs to not miss, and that includes understanding that over a thousand people a day arrive in Atlantic City on buses and trains on snowy winter Tuesdays. A casino developer ignores that market segment at his own peril.

Bart Blatstein, developer of the Piazza at Schmidt’s, and much of the rest of Northern Liberties besides, has made quite a lot of noise locally with his proposal for The Provence, which would include an adaptive reuse of the former Inquirer Building at Broad and Callowhill. While the location, a brief walk from Center City (especially the Convention Center and its associated hotels), seems almost ideal, there are pitfalls. First and most obviously, the walk up North Broad Street from the Convention Center, or North 16th Street from Suburban Station, involves dodging traffic from the Vine Street Expressway ramps, and a loud and unpleasant walk over the highway trench. The Broad Street Line express station at Spring Garden is a huge asset wasted. The grand entranceway is on the 1500 block of Callowhill, as far from the subway entrance as physically possible. The location of the retail component in a rooftop mall/garden, elevated from the street and set far back from the Broad Street frontage, deprives the shops of any incidental contact with the outside, to the detriment of both the shops and the neighborhood. The massive parking structure planned is the final component in the mystery: The Provence is content to serve a drivers-only clientele, and look out at Center City as if from afar, from the opposite side of an impenetrable highway moat. The employees may be able to commute in easily via the BSL, and out of town visitors will attempt to wander over from the Convention Center — a mistake I predict most will make only once. While it is certainly better than the South Philadelphia proposals, this is a serious waste of the potential of the site. Clearly the process by which NLNA dragged Blatstein to more enlightened design at the Piazza did not make any lasting impacts to his suburban developer mentality.

Fortunately, there is one final proposal. The geographically descriptive Market8, backed by Philadelphia developer Ken Goldenberg, Deutsche Bank, and Mohegan Sun, would sit on the 800 block of Market Street, today mostly occupied by the surface parking lot formerly known as the DisneyHole. That ill-starred entertainment project, also backed by Goldenberg, has hopefully taught Goldenberg the value of lining up sufficient capital beforehand; if it hasn’t, Deutsche Bank’s involvement with The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas has given it experience in foreclosing on its partners and proceeding on its own. Market8 has by far the smallest physical footprint, only a single city block. The city has already proposed turning Market East into a Times Square-like zone of lights and glitz, even without a casino, to revive the retail corridor gutted by the opening (and subsequent failure) of the Gallery. Underneath the site, of course, is one of the densest concentrations of transit in the region, at the intersection of the Market-Frankford El, PATCO, and the Broad-Ridge Spur; every Regional Rail line stops at Market East Station a block and a half away. Open house attendees were mostly concerned with traffic and parking issues; I would submit that holding the supply of parking strictly to the Gaming Control Board’s legal minimum would do much to keep traffic at a dull roar. The decision to have only one underground garage, with access only on Ranstead Street, will also help. The initial site plans keep the street frontage as mostly restaurants and retail, a correct decision for this block irrespective of the uses planned on the higher floors. The streetfront location, in between the Convention Center and the tourist attractions of Independence Mall, can provide actual synergy with existing tourist traffic and infrastructure; there are a dozen hotels on the surrounding blocks, and plenty for a non-gambling out-of-towner to do. The easy access, genuinely easy from most of Center City, will facilitate after-work visits from casual gamblers. In fact, everything about the site encourages the casual visitor more than any other proposal.

As you can probably tell, I saved my current favorite proposal for last. 8th and Market is a site that is crying out for high-intensity, high-density, 24-hour use, and I would be very pleased to see a casino at that location. As I told PlanPhilly’s Kellie Patrick Gates last night, it’s the site that promotes the most prosocial gambling economy and the best interface with the city around it. Still, as Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger reminded us, none of these proposals are done evolving yet; there is still opportunity and room for improvement for all of them. The Gaming Control Board’s public comment period is now open, and public hearings will be held April 11th and 12th. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the future development of the City of Philadelphia to take a long look at the proposal materials, and provide serious feedback.

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One thought on “May the odds be ever in your favor: Philadelphia’s Second Casino”

  1. There are, broadly speaking, three categories of people in a casino: workers, casual visitors, and frequent visitors.
    True. Although those are not the only categories of people whose lives will be affected by the casino — there’s also the passers-by. If you design a casino correctly, the passers-by will turn into casual visitors or maybe even workers if you advertise job openings to them. If you design it poorly, they will complain about the blank stretch of wall and the increased traffic near the relevant highway ramps; they will drive by and never go in. The casinos don’t seem to really care about passers-by — neither the automotive type nor the pedestrian type — and this oversight seems bewildering to me.

    The proposed casino locations are, if anything, even more reliant on this kind of market, being located further away from the subway than the stadia, and not generating the kinds of crowds that allow sports fans on foot to overwhelm the car-centric design of Pattison Avenue by sheer force of numbers.
    Clearly what we actually need is a Wynn South Philly, where Wynn throws enough money at the project to build the Wynn Corporation subway extension. So then we could have two corporate-branded stations in a row. Not that that’s really Wynn’s style. But a subway extension would be much classier than these silly shuttles.

    Unrelated to the above facetiousness, it sounds like Jersey must really love Steve Wynn right now…

    And here‘s your site rendering of the Wynn Philadelphia (scroll down to the second page), for comparison with the Wynn Everett.

    that includes understanding that over a thousand people a day arrive in Atlantic City on buses and trains on snowy winter Tuesdays.
    Agreed. Atlantic City has a massive transit advantage over Philadelphia, as long as Philadelphia casinos keep being transit-inaccessible. There is a culture of people taking buses down from New York City, three hours away, to spend a weekend in AC. It seems ridiculous not to cater to that market segment when it is right there — Philly is literally on the way to AC. Have any of these guys worked out casino-shuttle deals (low prices, free slot play) with the major bus lines? I think maybe I’ve seen Parx ads in Greyhound stations?

    The Broad Street Line express station at Spring Garden is a huge asset wasted. […] The location of the retail component in a rooftop mall/garden, elevated from the street and set far back from the Broad Street frontage, deprives the shops of any incidental contact with the outside.
    Yeah, I really want to like the Provence — I think it’s the most aesthetically pleasing, both abstractly and from a pedestrian perspective. But then it’s got these ridiculously short-sighted design choices. Admittedly, those rooftop shops will get some traffic from people trying to find the Philadelphia location of a specific shop, at least if the operators make good choices about which vendors to bring in. (I was thinking Godiva, but there is already a Godiva at Liberty Place. But that kind of thing. Classy, hard-to-find, and worth trekking up some stairs and past some slot machines for for.) It seems like it would be easy to do the Provence well, given that location, but they are so emphatically not paying attention and not bothering.

    Market 8 seems to avoid the worst of the Provence’s design errors, and it’s even more transit-accessible, but I really can’t get over the weird aesthetic of the place. Can’t we just get some nice normal shopfronts to all that ground-floor shopping? Otherwise why would you even bother going in? Nobody will be able to see the shopping behind that weird architectural thing (scroll to second page again). As with the Provence, somebody seemed like they had enough design sense to make some decent urban choices, and then they revealed that it was just a fluke with that ground-level view. You write that the ” site plans keep the street frontage as mostly restaurants and retail”, but no, the street frontage is currently slated to be weird art.

    That ill-starred entertainment project, also backed by Goldenberg, has hopefully taught Goldenberg the value of lining up sufficient capital beforehand; if it hasn’t, Deutsche Bank’s involvement with The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas has given it experience in foreclosing on its partners and proceeding on its own.
    Yeah, I can already see that this is going to go well…

    In fact, everything about the site encourages the casual visitor more than any other proposal.
    This is really crucial here. The fact is that problem gamblers (and pros like yourself, for that matter) will seek out casinos wherever they are. Casual gamblers are much more likely to bother showing up at a casino if it’s somewhere that actually makes sense. And of course, the overall health of the place — socially, emotionally, financially — is going to be a lot better if the population of problem gamblers and pros is diluted by casual visitors who actually remember how normal people think. Who can recognize problematic behavior when it’s happening, rather than being so obsessed with risk that they think credit-card roulette and prop bets are good ideas. As you say, ensuring a population of casual visitors is all about access. If you’re visiting from out of town you often don’t have a car, so even just catering to the kind of tourists who show up at the airport with a suitcase and don’t already plan to stay in a casino ought to require some kind of transit accessibility. Otherwise you’re limited to tourists who drive in in the first place, or tourists who show up in a top-six metro area with a solid transit system and then rent a car for some reason. Not smart.

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