Changing Skyline: Chance to save riverfront

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The airport's Overseas Terminal site is a casino trifecta, with transportation, parking, hotels.

Politicians, as we are fully aware, are a species of chameleon. Take State Sen. Vince Fumo. In 2004, he proudly penned the bill legalizing slot machines in Pennsylvania. Today, he is Philadelphia's most outspoken opponent of allowing casinos on the Delaware riverfront.

It's tempting to dismiss Fumo as a down-to-the-bone cynic with a well-oiled weather vane and an inscrutable agenda. I prefer to see his little policy adjustment as an opportunity: Don't ask why; ask, "What next?"

Especially since Fumo isn't the only elected official concerned about the location of the new casinos. The six other members of the city's Harrisburg delegation have joined him in opposing the riverfront sites selected by Philadelphia's two designated casino operators, SugarHouse and Foxwoods. Councilman Frank DiCicco, who represents Philadelphia's river wards, pointed out months ago that it was foolish to mar the magnificent Delaware with the gambling industry's windowless boxes, towering concrete garages, and caravans of cars.

And now, it appears Mayor Nutter may also be having   second thoughts. Only hours after taking the oath of office, when there was plenty else to occupy public attention, he ordered a review of the last-minute approvals SugarHouse secured from the Street administration.

When people like these open the door for you, it would be churlish not to sashay through. Conveniently, two Philadelphia state representatives, Michael O'Brien and William Keller, have provided the stopper to keep that door from swinging back in the faces of casino opponents.

In September, the pair introduced a genius bit of legislation, House Bill 1840, that offers an honorable compromise for everyone with a stake in Philadelphia's gaming experiment - the operators, neighborhood residents, Philadelphia politicians, and Gov. Rendell.

Their bill isn't a naive attempt to repeal legalized gambling in Philadelphia. It's too late for that, unfortunately. But it goes further than a separate casino bill, Rep. Babette Josephs' H.B. 1477, that requires a 1,500-foot buffer from residential areas. Their draft provides the first practical solution for getting the casinos off the riverfront and out of the neighborhoods, while still guaranteeing the state a stream of gambling revenue.

O'Brien and Keller want to eliminate the stipulation that Philadelphia's casinos must be located 10 miles from the two others on Pennsylvania's eastern flank, Harrah's in Chester and Philadelphia Park in Bensalem. Once you get rid of the 10-mile rule, you open up all kinds of less intrusive sites. The bill doesn't specify a favorite, but for O'Brien it's Philadelphia International Airport.

The airport location is the equivalent of hitting three cherries on an old slot machine. It has it all: great roads, plentiful parking, nice hotels, and, best of all, no neighbors - plus a SEPTA train connection and a continuous cycle of shuttle buses.

The airport landscape, once an environmentally rich marsh, is already carpeted in asphalt and concrete. The city has sizable real estate holdings there, making it possible to swap land with Foxwoods and SugarHouse.

O'Brien believes the old Overseas Terminal, on Island Avenue, "would be the perfect location" for at least one casino. But there is no shortage of private surface parking lots in the vicinity that have room for a casino and a garage. Who knows, if the facility were well-planned, the garage might do double duty and provide spaces for the airport. O'Brien thinks it's possible to move both casinos to the airport vicinity.

We can hear the objections pouring in already. The airport will say it needs to keep the land in reserve for future growth. Harrah's will squawk that it's unfair to put another casino only six miles up the road on Interstate 95, instead of 16. The Republicans in Delaware and Bucks Counties, home to the two racinos, will join the cacophony. Rendell and the state Supreme Court will grumble that an airport move is simply another delaying tactic.

But here we are, more than a year after the two Philadelphia casinos were granted licenses. Not a spade of earth has been turned on either site, and the lawsuits seem likely to go on. Meanwhile, Rendell's clock is ticking. If he hopes to claim property-tax relief as a legacy, he needs gamblers to start pumping money into Philadelphia slots before he leaves office in 2011. Now's the chance to make a deal.

"The governor wants revenues. We want the casinos moved," says O'Brien. "We're amenable to a conversation."

There's no denying that the 11th-hour political keening over the riverfront sites smacks of opportunism. Many suspect that the newly converted pols are only trying hard enough to claim their CasiNO T-shirts. They don't come free, however. They're going to have to invest serious political capital to change the status quo.

For those who believe the casinos will be an economic boon, the search for new sites is just more stalling. But stalling has a way of clarifying things. PennPraxis' recent report on the waterfront offered a far more imaginative vision for the Delaware than Rendell and Mayor Street ever allowed themselves.

We now know what Philadelphia's great river can be. But judging from the look of the development proposals that have been clustering around the casino sites like barnacles, we know what it will be if the slots parlors are built. It won't just be the Foxwoods and SugarHouse sites that are ruined; it will be the acres around them.

So does it really matter whether gamblers driving on I-95 get off at Girard Avenue for SugarHouse, Washington Avenue for Foxwoods, or the airport exit? Once you're inside a windowless slots barn, the view of the machines is exactly the same.


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