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PHILADELPHIA-Following up on its 10-point action plan for redeveloping the central Delaware waterfront, PennPraxis has concluded that the two 5,000-slot casinos proposed for the waterfront are not compatible with that plan or the civic vision PennPraxis unveiled last November. Mayor Michael Nutter, who endorsed the action plan in June, had asked the nonprofit urban planning group to prepare a report analyzing the casinos’ current designs.

Titled “Casino Site Plan Review,” the report scores designs for the two casinos—SugarHouse and Foxwoods Philadelphia—on 84 compatibility questions tied to the 10-point action plan, which had addressed zoning, transit and public access. For each question, the site plans are rated as either compliant with the action plan, non-compliant but “fixable” or non-compliant and “not fixable.”

Both the Foxwoods and SugarHouse plans are scored as non-compliant but fixable on most of the questions. For example, the current site plans do not call for ecologically sound design techniques such as vegetated swales and pervious pavements, although the report notes that there are “opportunities” to install these. On some questions, the ratings overlap between two columns, with footnotes explaining that the plans address some but not all of the compliance requirements.

The report, which PennPraxis prepared in consultation with a team of urban planning experts, also offers specific recommendations on how the site plans could be made more compatible with the civic vision for the waterfront. The wide, rectangular buildings currently planned could be divided into narrower, taller structures, for example. Additionally, the amount of parking could be reduced and greater emphasis could be placed on mass transit and pedestrian traffic, and streets and green space could be extended through the casino parcels.

However, the report concludes, “there remain too many outstanding design factors, including large garages, mega-block building footprints and blank walls, that cannot be overcome based on the American slot parlor casino business model. These challenges lead to a conclusion that casinos of this program-type do not work on these sites and, by extension, would be better sited elsewhere.”

Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, tells GlobeSt.com, “From a strictly urban design perspective, which is how we looked at it, it’s difficult to make these types of casinos comply. Could they become vertical casinos with far less parking and greater reliance on mass transit? From an urban design standpoint, yes. From a business standpoint, that’s outside our purview.”

Steinberg says it’s a matter for the casino operators, the city and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to push the plans “further along in terms of verticality and fewer cars. What we’ve tried to do was to say, ‘Here’s the vision and here’s the metrics for the waterfront. Do these plans work? Not totally. Could they make them better? Yes.’ Now it’s up to others to take this as they see fit.”

According to published reports, the Nutter administration is reviewing the PennPraxis study of the casino site plans before deciding what steps to take next. Calls to the City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority were not returned by deadline.

A spokeswoman for locally based HSP Gaming, developer of SugarHouse, tells GlobeSt.com the company has no comment on the PennPraxis report. However, a Foxwoods source tells GlobeSt.com, “the conclusions reached by Penn Praxis only confirm that Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia was correct in our suspicion that the outcome was predetermined.” She says “this point was driven home” when some of PennPraxis’ team of experts supported Foxwoods’ assertion that auto traffic is a manageable issue—comments that were reported in local news media but were “nowhere to be found in the report.”

Alluding to the three days of workshops PennPraxis held in the course of preparing the report, the Foxwoods source adds, “while Penn Praxis spent three days reviewing and revising our plans, Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia has spent nearly three years and more than $100 million developing and designing a world-class entertainment facility that will positively transform South Columbus Boulevard, making it more pedestrian friendly, improving traffic flow and providing riverfront access to the community for the first time.” Both HSP and Foxwoods have insisted that their proposals have already been approved by the City Planning Commission and that they intend to build the casinos on the waterfront.

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