Changing Skyline: SugarHouse's looks are beside the point

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The much-anticipated SugarHouse casino in Philadelphia opened yesterday, with up to 500 people waiting in line as doors opened at 1:30 p.m.

The new SugarHouse recreation path is precisely the tonic the forlorn Delaware River waterfront has always needed, a broad, tree-lined walkway that offers full-body immersion in one of Philadelphia's most majestic landscapes. The river feels close enough to touch, yet you're never disconnected from the protective Oz of the city's skyline. Even the floating remains of the Jack Frost sugar refinery are a beautiful, bittersweet reminder of the city's industrial heritage.

My only regret is the price of the SugarHouse path: the SugarHouse Casino.

SugarHouse is, of course, the first legal gambling hall built in Philadelphia since the state legislature imposed those nuisances in a midnight vote in 2004. During the years of legal wrangling that followed, the original megaplan for the 21-acre site - a virtual city of condo towers and highway cloverleafs - was miniaturized into a single, modest box the size of a suburban supermarket.

As gaming houses go, that makes the new casino a rather benign example of the genre. Cope Linder Architects, the Philadelphia firm responsible for Atlantic City's Borgata, also brought a welcome bit of sophistication to Sugarhouse's exterior by disguising the rectangular box in handsome, folded planes of gray-green aluminum (though they look blue from afar). Considering the tight construction budget, about $80 million, the results are impressive.

Credit also goes to the owners, who include political insiders Daniel Keating and Richard A. Sprague, for exercising restraint and eschewing the industry habit of decorating casino facades like giant slot machines.

You won't see a digital screen, neon sign or towering billboard on the SugarHouse property. The casino is so understated that an out-of-towner (or, someone sunk in a coma for the last six years) might mistake it for a completely different building type, perhaps an ice rink or a small regional airport.

Yet, as grateful as we are for their refined taste, Sugarhouse's looks are really beside the point. Who cares about formal architectural qualities when so much asphalt has been slicked over on the city's beautiful riverfront to provide surface parking for the expected 30,000 daily visitors? That added traffic will only make it harder to restore Delaware Avenue to a walkable boulevard.

When I first stepped onto the two-block-long path, and saw the gentle arc of the Ben Franklin Bridge crowning the horizon, I momentarily thought the walkway might redeem the casino's presence. Then I strolled around to the front and confronted the immense paved desert separating the building from its Delaware Avenue neighbors.

Real street fabric still exists on that tattered boulevard, brawny brick factories as strong and resilient as the people who once labored inside. SugarHouse should have been one of that bunch.

After all, SugarHouse claims its building is an urban variant of the casino form. It's made a point of branding itself that way through the much-vaunted "industrial aesthetic" of its architecture and its promises of working-class employment. Prove you're urban by acting urban.

The city's own guide to waterfront development, the Civic Vision for the Delaware, strongly urges developers to ensure that their buildings hug the sidewalk along Delaware Avenue. While SugarHouse was approved before those rules were set, its suburban form won't make it any easier for the city to enforce discipline with future developers. Why should they toe the urban line when SugarHouse got away with the same old sprawl and low-cost parking lot?

Because of its diminutive size, Sugarhouse's damage to the waterfront may appear minimal now. But the owners are already wrapping up an expansion plan that will triple its footprint to include more slots and tables, a concert venue, and banquet hall, as well as a 74-foot-tall garage for more than 3,000 cars.

SugarHouse will look a lot less benign when its facade is four blocks long instead of merely two. And even after the garage replaces the surface parking lots, the big gap between the casino's front door and the street will remain.

Although SugarHouse is the region's first casino located in a dense city, its approach is no different from that of it predecessors, Harrah's Chester or Bensalem's Parx. From the outside, SugarHouse does represent a notch up in quality. But veteran gamblers are unlikely to be impressed by the cramped, 45,000-square-foot gaming hall, which is packed to the walls with 1,600 slot machines and 40 table games.

Those table games were a last-minute addition, approved just this year by the legislature. As a result, the interior, designed by Floss Barber, is so crowded that you practically bump into a blinking bandit two strides past the front door.

SugarHouse didn't waste an inch of the premises on graciousness, and that detracts from the potential fun that an occasional casino visit might offer. Parx, which has nearly triple the space, at least makes an effort to create a sexy nightclub scene with its circular bar, performance stage, and dance floor. At SugarHouse, even the bar surfaces are embedded with slot machines.

The expansion will no doubt reduce the claustrophobic feeling inside. On the outside, the good news is that the waterfront path will also be extended.

When that happens, the SugarHouse walkway will be separated on the north from Penn Treaty Park's pathways by a tantalizing 150 feet. The gap will be even less on the south end, between the casino and the gated Waterfront Square high-rises (another planning mistake), which have their own private walk along the river.

If the Nutter administration reached out to those neighbors, it might persuade them to link their properties into Sugarhouse's public walkway. Then, Philadelphia would have the nucleus of a serious riverfront path - stretching from East Columbia Avenue, south to Spring Garden Street, which hosts an important east-west bike path.

Gambling may have won the Delaware waterfront, but that doesn't mean it's winner-take-all.

 


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