Changing Skyline: Foxwoods needs right scale

Gallery casino plans must take the neighborhood into account.

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The Gallery, the new planned site for the Foxwoods Casino, is seen from 10th and Arch Streets in Chinatown, which has a big stake in the project.

It's been widely accepted that Foxwoods' casino would bring havoc to South Philadelphia, swamping Columbus Boulevard with traffic jams and cutting off its rowhouse neighborhoods from the Delaware River. So doesn't it follow that relocating Foxwoods to the Gallery would do similar harm to the residents of Chinatown?

Not necessarily.

Unlike the overgrown waterfront, which is still stuck in a transitional limbo from its industrial past, Market Street is a fully mature urban place, equipped with the parking and transit infrastructure to absorb an onslaught of people and vehicles. One appeal of moving Foxwoods to Center City's sad-sack shopping mall is that we won't be saddled with another ugly, blank-walled box - it already exists. Foxwoods can only help improve the Gallery's appearance.

Of course, that doesn't mean the slots parlor can move in right away. Tomorrow, when City Council conducts a special hearing on rezoning the Gallery for gambling, the Nutter administration had better be prepared to outline its defensive strategy. The city must take measures to buffer its precious Chinatown neighborhood, perhaps the last place in Philadelphia where people still live, work and shop within a few square blocks.

Planning and zoning restrictions are obviously crucial. But they alone can't protect Chinatown. Mayor Nutter needs to confront the monster in the room: You can't simply move a replica of Foxwoods' waterfront slots parlor to a downtown location. It has to be right-sized for Market Street.

The real test for the mayor will be how he finesses that issue with Gov. Rendell. When Rendell's folks laid down the rules for Pennsylvania's casinos four years ago, they created a form of factory gambling whose sole purpose is to stamp out huge sums for the state treasury. Their one-size-fits-all model requires casinos to field 5,000 slot machines. That's more one-armed bandits than you'll find in any Vegas casino.

Worse, the Rendell administration barred table games like poker and blackjack, which attract a more affluent audience than slots. Instead, the state went for the Kmart crowd. Rendell's gambling model is guaranteed to produce generic stand-alone slots barns unsullied by the distractions of shops, theaters or fine restaurants.

And now, he wants to put this low-end schlock in the heart of the state's biggest, most cosmopolitan city, at 11th and Market Streets, two blocks from the Convention Center?

No wonder the Chinatown community is suspicious.

As the Center City District's Paul Levy writes in his agency's fall newsletter, Rendell's slots parlors are "auto-dependent facilities" aimed at day-trippers from the nearby suburbs.

So, no matter how much the Nutter administration trumpets the Gallery's transit connections, Foxwoods' slots parlor will have trouble appealing to the group mostly likely to arrive on footor by subway: the hordes of upscale, educated tourists and conventioneers staying in city hotels. Right now, it's designed to pump money from locals, not out-of-towners.

Many of Chinatown's fears about Foxwoods' impact flow directly from this condition. A smaller, high-end boutique casino with table games is likely to generate fewer charter buses and less nuisance behavior. New Orleans, whose downtown casino is a real mixed entertainment venue, has proved that it is really possible to get gamblers to walk to the front door. Half its customers arrive on foot because they're tourists staying in nearby hotels.

Louisiana, like Pennsylvania, struggled with the problem of assigning gaming licenses to different markets. But Louisiana had the good sense to create a special license for its biggest city. Pennsylvania could do the same.

It's worth noting that the winner of that license, Harrah's, built a civic-scale, brick casino in New Orleans. Its Chester operation is housed in the kind of steel flex-frame building favored by low-price stores.

For many, the appeal of a Foxwoods in Center City is the prospect of obtaining funds to improve Market Street's dowdy shopping district. Levy is pushing for a special redevelopment agency capable of floating bonds to pay for planning and streetscape improvements that are necessary to lure better stores, hotels and other amenities.

Chinatown also deserves a piece of that planning and investment. It's not unreasonable for its residents to ask the city to move or upgrade the shed it calls a bus station, build a lid on the Vine Street Expressway and ban pawnshops and check-cashing spots near the casino.

Unfortunately, a low-end casino is no more likely to give the historic shopping street back its glow than the stores that already line the blocks between Eighth and 12th Streets. The danger is that the Nutter administration could end up basing its planning on unrealistic expectations.

Many of the arguments being made over the proposed Foxwoods move sound like a replay of the ballpark debate from a decade ago. When the Phillies won the World Series, I couldn't help picturing what the scene might have been like with a downtown venue at 16th and Callowhill Streets. Would the surrounding streets be buzzing with restaurants and new housing?

Casinos are targeted brands, just like chain stores. Surely, Philadelphia deserves a better brand than the one it's being offered at the Gallery.


Changing Skyline: Gallery Hearing

City Council's rules committee will conduct a public hearing on rezoning the Gallery area for gaming at 10 a.m. tomorrow in City Hall's Council chambers. Those wishing to testify may register in person that morning, but may speak no more than three minutes. They may also submit testimony in writing.


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