The Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved this afternoon a plan of development for SugarHouse, a casino proposed for 22 acres of Delaware riverfront in Fishtown. With zoning and parking changes approved by City Council two weeks ago and signed into law by Mayor Nutter last week, the OK from the City Planning Commission represents the last major hurdle for the project's investors to get moving on construction. [You can download the SugarHouse plan here but be warned: It's a huge file.]
The plan was approved in a 4-2 vote. One commission member, Nancy Rogo Trainer, said she was troubled by the "suburban character" of the SugarHouse plan. "It could be almost anywhere and not on the banks of the Delaware," she added. "I think it's a missed opportunity." Member Joe Syrnick worried that planned paths along the riverfront were "rather skimpy" for crowds he anticipated from casino customers and others. Member Natalia Olson de Savyckyj joined Trainer in voting against the plan, later calling it a "dressed-up Wal-Mart" and the wrong type of development for the riverfront. Syrnick voted for the plan with Nilda Ruiz, Peggy Van Belle and Anuj Gupta.
About a dozen anti-casino and neighborhood activists protested before and during the hearing. During testimony, four of the activists called the hearing a "farce" and a "testament to poor city planning." They tossed bags of fake cash, meant to represent the influence of casino investors, onto the stage where the commission was sitting.
SugarHouse was approved along with Foxwoods, the city's second casino, by the state Gaming Control Board in December 2006. Both projects were hampered for years, first by City Council, neighborhood groups and anti-gambling activists, and then last year by Nutter's new administration. That changed earlier this year after a series of pro-casino rulings by the state Supreme Court and a threat from the state General Assembly to strip Philadelphia of millions in benefits from gaming taxes.
Nutter and Councilman Frank DiCicco announced with SugarHouse in early April that the project would start with an interim casino with 1,700 slot machines surrounded by surface parking lots. Those lots will be transformed in later phases into a larger casino and a 3,000-space parking garage. SugarHouse says it expects to open the interim casino between April and June of next year. The state Gaming Control Board in May approved those changes to the SugarHouse plan.
A Pew Charitable Trusts poll in April found that city residents support the SugarHouse location 60 percent to 35 percent while Foxwoods, originally proposed for South Philly but now planning on a Center City site, was opposed 57 percent to 39 percent.