Looks like it's back to South Philly for Foxwoods casino

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The slots plot in contention: This empty, overgrown parcel of land at Columbus Boulevard and Reed Street seems to be back in play as the site for the Foxwoods casino. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)

AGROUP of investors trying to open a casino in Center City will likely be instructed tomorrow to focus instead on its state-approved location on the Delaware riverfront in South Philly.

The state Gaming Control Board will hold a hearing to consider a request for a two-year extension to build the Foxwoods casino. That project's one-year deadline to open expired in May.

"We're looking forward to meeting with the Gaming Control Board, discussing the extension of our license and moving this project forward," said Foxwoods spokeswoman Maureen Garrity.

Garrity declined to say if Foxwoods will push for the Center City site or return to South Philly.

Mayor Nutter, an opponent of the South Philly location for its potential impacts on traffic and nearby neighborhoods, said that those concerns have not changed.

"It's a bad site," he said. "So it would be our preference for them to stay at their last identified location and that we not have any circumstance where they would even be thinking about returning to the waterfront location."

Foxwoods - a partnership of local investors and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation - was approved by the board in December 2006 for a 21-acre lot on Columbus Boulevard at Reed Street.

That prompted nearly two years of legal battles with neighborhood groups, anti-casino activists, City Council and the new administration of Mayor Nutter.

The investors, after meetings last summer with Nutter and Gov. Rendell, agreed in September to consider a move to the Gallery, at 11th and Market streets. That site was dropped early this year in favor of the former Strawbridge & Clothier department store at 8th and Market streets.

That raised two legal issues:

The former Strawbridge & Clothier building has two owners. The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) owns the lower floors, including the store, while Gramercy Capital Corp. controls seven floors of office space above.

Gramercy doesn't want a casino in the building and could sue if the lease is signed, adding more delays to the troubled project.

"We're acting on our own behalf, in our own best interest," Gramercy general counsel Edward Matey Jr. said this week. "None of our tenants favor a conversion of the use of the property from an office building to a mixed use, including a casino."

PREIT did not respond to calls from the Daily News this week.

Even with a last-minute lease, Foxwoods would still face problems. The investors would need to file a request to relocate their casino license, which would add several months of delays.

_ Trump Entertainment Resorts, denied a state license in 2006 for a proposed casino in Nicetown, filed a petition in January with the Gaming Control Board, seeking the Foxwoods license since the investors have not developed the South Philly site.

Location was a factor used to decide which of five applicants won the city's two casino licenses. Trump's filing notes that the board considered proximity to the riverfront and Interstate 95 for Foxwoods in the decision.

A Foxwoods relocation plan would likely give Trump stronger standing for a legal challenge.

Brian Ford, CEO of the local casino investor group, did not respond to questions about a potential return to the riverfront.

The Foxwoods Development Co., run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe to develop casinos in other states, also did not respond to questions. The tribe runs the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut.

The investors have noted during their attempts to relocate the project that they maintain the right to build a casino at the South Philly location.

Chinatown residents held noisy protests about the potential casino on nearby Market Street, replacing South Philly residents who objected to the original Foxwoods location. Those South Philly groups are likely to be angered if Foxwoods tries to return.

The Chinatown protests did not prevent City Council and the City Planning Commission from swiftly approving casino zoning, first for the Gallery and then for the former department store.

Foxwoods already has zoning for the South Philly location.

The state Supreme Court last year ordered the city to approve casino zoning and the plan of development for the site.

Planning Commission executive director Alan Greenberger said that the city hasn't been told what Foxwoods plans to do. He is not sure that the investors would stick to the original plan for the site.

"Would it be what they had before?" he asked. "Would it be substantially different?"

Foxwoods added the law firm of Cozen O'Connor to its team for tomorrow's hearing. Cozen successfully fought a series of legal battles to keep SugarHouse, the city's other casino, on its riverfront location in Fishtown.

In a filing last Friday with the Gaming Control Board, Cozen and other Foxwoods attorneys twice noted the possibility of moving to Center City and twice said that the casino may stay put in South Philly.

That came in response to a June 11 filing from the board's Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement, which accused Foxwoods of failing to show adequate reasons for why a Center City casino would be better than one in South Philly. That filing complained that the investors have provided only "vague and nondescript concepts" instead of real plans for a Center City casino.