Foxwoods @ the Gallery: the process still stinks

This weekend marks one of Asia’s most significant holidays – the Harvest Moon – as well as Asian Americans United 13th Annual Mid-Autumn Festival, an event AAU founded to celebrate the cultural survival and community power of Philadelphia Chinatown, one of the city’s oldest immigrant neighborhoods.

Eight years ago, Mid-Autumn Festival was marked by the thousands of people who used this cherished gathering to declare their defiance of a new mayor’s proposal to establish a baseball stadium on Chinatown’s borders. At the time, it was considered a “done deal” and few expected resistance from a largely non-English speaking community with one of the poorest zip codes (at the time) in the city. No effort was made by the city to communicate with the residents of the neighborhood or to engage with the community’s plans for affordable housing, schools, parks, and gardens.

Chinatown had to fight tooth and nail to establish itself as a neighborhood with real needs and a vision for itself. Among the many arguments used against us was that Chinatown had no alternatives for the land north of Vine Street. But eight years is telling. Eight years later, Chinatown North (as it is dubbed) is a far different vision for a city’s development than the one nearly forced upon this community.

Cross Vine Street and walk the footprint of what would have been the stadium. You’ll find:

  • a new annex for Chinese Christian Church, to house their growing congregation;
  • the building headquarters of the Greater Philadelphia Fujianese Association, one of the fastest growing ethnicities in Philadelphia, whose business and community leadership has changed the face of the community;
  • Khmer Art Gallery, which celebrates the culture and arts of Cambodia, and Liao Collection, a gallery and store of Asian arts and antiques, whose owners relocated to this location after being active participants in the battle against the proposed baseball stadium; and
  • Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, an arts-based elementary charter school serving 400-some students founded by Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

Contrast this with a stadium that would have stayed empty two-thirds of the year, and offered this community little of the kind of “progress” it desired. Is it any wonder that this community fought a baseball stadium with every bit of its breath?

So why would city and state officials think that a casino would be any less repellant? The expected announcement today of the Foxwoods casino re-site to the Gallery is shocking on a number of levels.

First, since it’s apparently been forgotten: Chinatown is a NEIGHBORHOOD. Almost a quarter of its residents are children. We have homes, places of worship, cultural centers, and schools. A casino has no business in or around residential neighborhoods

Second, given the stadium history, it’s shocking that city and state officials would repeat past mistakes and make an announcement without any communication with neighborhood residents. The broader Chinatown community was neither consulted with or even informed of this announcement. We applaud the move to re-site the casinos – done largely in recognition of the flawed process and community activism that sunk the waterfront sites. But it is ironic/disrespectful/outrageous to ignore these past lessons and simply re-site to a different neighborhood with the same lack of process and communication.

Third, the Gallery location reportedly may come with perks for Foxwoods – including potential input on the development of the Market East corridor, a trouble-free approval process, tax breaks or compensation to abandon the waterfront sites, and legal immunity. None of these are priorities or an appropriate use of public process or dollars in difficult economic times.

And finally, we deserve a city that sets its development priorities based on a public planning process guided by unifying principles for what a city and its people need. It doesn’t need politically-connected operators to dictate how and when a city develops and uses its precious resources and money.

Obviously we need a lot more information to know where this is going. But right now, unless we hear differently, we’re ready for a fight.

Bad Urban Planning

I am writing as a concerned citizen and former resident of Chinatown, where I lived for 9 years and continue to have many personal and business connections.

The re-siting of Foxwoods at the Gallery/Market East is a major violation of good urban planning principles and social policy, and a betrayal of the citizens of Philadelphia.

The politicians who control decision-making in our State and City have learned nothing from the citizen work that has been done in the past two years with the Penn Praxis City Planning forums http://www.planphilly.com/node/2317 , nothing from the solid research presented by casino opponents. We believed that a new city administration would do more than just talk about good city planning. We thought they would actually do good city planning. We stood and cheered when Mayor Nutter publicly endorsed the Delaware Waterfront Plan http://www.phillyalliance.org/node/59 , so imagine the betrayal I and many others felt seeing Nutter at the podium announcing the stealth decision to re-site the casino adjacent to Chinatown, one of the most dense and vibrant neighborhoods in the City.

The last big battle my family and neighbors fought in Chinatown was the baseball stadium that was to be located in the Chinatown North/Callowhill District, and I assure you that Chinatown residents and other concerned Center City residents will rally to fight this new threat too. My goal today as a Northern Liberties resident fighting the casinos is NOT to see the casino forced into another neighborhood, as some of the posters on this site have stated. I am also very upset to see casino opponents labeled as racist. I have a bi-racial family, with a Chinese spouse, and I oppose casinos in or near any neighborhood. People using this forum should refrain from bigotry and name-calling and instead stand together to build better communities.

Setting aside issues of gambling addiction, crime, and other negative social consequences of casino operations that will surely be factors here, and looking at this decision simply from a planning perspective, it is my opinion that this will be a detriment to Center City. Market East is not an island--it is a transportation/shopping district that is connected to and serves many neighborhoods.

But in spite of its role as a major transportation hub and shopping area, Market East today is a dismal, dysfunctional place because of big box developments like the Gallery complex, which conceals most of its retail/human activity behind windowless walls, creating an uninviting atmosphere at street level. The lack of residential housing is the other significant factor that contributes to a ghost town atmosphere after 6 PM when the shoppers/ office workers go home. Taken as a whole, the Gallery is an anti-urban design that removes pedestrian activity from the street, contributing to a dead zone between the vibrancy of a re-born Broad Street/Chestnut Street district, Washington West, Chinatown and Old City.

Despite the hulking, anti-urban presence of the Gallery complex, the surrounding neighborhoods have been moving in the right direction with a return of hotel, retail and residential development. A block-sized slots barn that literally plies its customers with free food and drink to keep them at the slot machines, will be detrimental to the surrounding hospitality/retail/restaurant businesses. Rendell's remarks that this will revive the neighborhood is not based on any sound urban planning principles, and is an extension of his out-of-touch slots policy.

The decision to move Foxwood's slots barn to the Gallery/Market East district is bad urban planning. Good urban planning would a)invite community participation in decision-making, and b)guide development toward a mixed use, residential/commercial/retail mix that creates vibrant, livable neighborhoods.

Jesse Gardner
New Urbanist Designer

Ironies

What makes the Gallery site appealing for Foxwoods is exactly what makes it a disaster as a shopping center -- it's built like a casino.

A comprehensive plan to develop Market East that radically rethinks or razes the Gallery and keeps Philadelphia casino-free is the best case scenario. I would say the very best case scenario, just speaking from my own opinion, is to build parks, mixed-use neighborhoods, and a small state college along the riverfront instead of casinos.

Within the existing physical structure, if one or more casinos are inevitable for the city of Philadelphia (and that is a big if) I do not believe that the Gallery site would be the worst case scenario for a casino in Philadelphia.

To go forward with this as a fait accompli without first seeking out input from a range of stakeholders and community groups in and around Market East is atrocious.

Inga Saffron has suggested a Market Street site

between 9th and 12th might be the best location for an urban casino, if -- and only if -- it is designed as an actual urban casino, and not the typical suburban block-store style casinos that are in the other American gambling cities, except one.

The lone successful urban American casino, Saffron has said, is the New Orleans Harrah's. I only have excerpts from an article she wrote in 2005, but here's some:

Cast aside your notions of what an American casino is supposed to look like. The New Orleans Harrah's, the only casino located in the heart of a major American downtown, has more in common architecturally with Philadelphia's Kimmel Center than with the frothy confections that dominate Las Vegas and Atlantic City

She notes that its close proximity to the local Convention Center is the key, as well as its close access to a public transit hub. When planned, 40% of its customers were expected to arrive on foot or by public transportation. When it opened, it turned out that more than half arrived that way:

If the Philadelphia casinos match the success of Harrah's in New Orleans, they can each expect 25,000 patrons over the 24-hour course of a typical Saturday. In New Orleans, more than half of Harrah's gamblers arrive on foot or take mass transit.

Can that happen on the Gallery site, which has already had a deadening effect on Market Street-life?

I don't know. If, in reconstructing the Gallery, the street level were converted into a commercial block with stores that actually faced the street, I believe that that would be an improvement over the current mall. Technically, the street level could be converted to commercial spaces facing the street, since the planned casino is supposedly "rooftop." That's a big "if" though.

How to get conventioneers to the Gallery site is another question. The Gallery is close but not connected to the Convention Center.

I agree that even getting to the proposal stage, which is where they are, without some community input is a mistake. Probably the negotiations with a reluctant Foxwoods had something to do with that, and I do not doubt that Ron Rubin's major stock in the Gallery played a large role in the site's being proposed. However, according to philly.com, the mayor started talking to community groups today. We'll see how that goes.

Developing a workable design and plan, if it comes to that, should be contingent on designing something that will not harm Chinatown and that could benefit Market Street. Personally, I don't think that's impossible. Confession: I even suggested a Market Street site to the Mayor myself, during the campaign, and suggested he look at Saffron's article.

But I know making such an endeavor successful would be difficult and would have to BEGIN by bringing the community into the design process. THEN it will require designing something unlike the vast majority of American casinos, and THEN require continuing to work with the community to reduce the problems associated with casinos because problems there will be.

Can it work? I don't know.

The Convention Center, and the example of the New Orleans Harrah's, always made a Market Street site seem to me a far better option than those sites proposed before, but I do not suggest that the site will necessarily work. Nor am I sure that an acceptable design can be created.

I will say that I think it's worth pursuing as an alternative to the current Foxwoods site.

Philadelphia is no New Orleans

Casting aside for a moment, the larger principles about democratic and public processes as well as the belief that cities ought to control planning and their economic futures, a couple of major differences between Philly and New Orleans (where i lived for a semester):

  1. New Orleans ranks, what, #1 or #2 in the nation (pre-Katrina that is)in terms of the number of conventions they attract to the city. Harrah's sees the kind of massive volume it does largely because of the presence of countless conventions and hundreds of thousands of conventioneers a year.
  1. There are some genuine questions about whether the Philadelphia Convention Center is really investing in bringing in conventions or whether they've sort of hit a low bar, preferring to sell themselves through shows - the Philadelphia Flower Show, the Home Show and Car Show for example. The difference is important because conventioneers get out and moving over a period of time(usually via public transit or on foot), and show folks are an in and out day crowd.
  1. Harrah's does not anchor New Orleans' tourism by any stretch. The French Quarter does, the Jazz Festival, Mardi Gras, all attract an international crowd of party-goers and conventioneers and people who want to be entertained. Harrah's is just one part of the mix seeking to cash in on all else in that area.

I also disagree that there is any sort of "public transit hub" in New Orleans. NOLA doesn't have subways or regional rails. It basically has buses and the touristy St. Charles trolley line which ends there.

So I would certainly challenge the notion that Harrah's is a model for how Philly ought not to worry about traffic and congestion concerns (SEPTA regional rails close down at midnight don't they?) and that it can capitalize on all these mythical conventioneers which I question really exist here.

And what all that means is this: there's really no comparison between NOLA and Philly, and predicating fantastic visions of a NOLA-like tourism revival via a cheap slots parlour (and that kind of tourism/entertainment district will be a hard sell - if folks can't stand the Greek Picnic, then you have no idea what Mardi Gras looks and feels like) is just beyond all stretch of reason.

Back to the original idea

which is taking the time to talk for a moment about vision and planning and the future of our city. The baseball stadium at the time was a chance to talk about what kind of city we were trying to create - why were we spending a billion dollars on stadiums for other people's entertainment when real needs among our communities were crying out to be addressed?

In the discussion around today's announcement, it was casually dropped that Foxwoods expected a lot of legislative help to make its move, one of which was the rezoning of Market East to an entertainment district. And I guess I want to challenge that a bit and ask whether this is what we saw for the Market Street corridor revival.

This is not me saying no to jobs or development in any way. But I do in some ways, have an issue with the pressure for Philly to subsume the interests of its residents, neighborhoods, communities - to the whims of operators (all of whom stand to profit from such ventures) who want to reshape our political process, our resources, our land, and our economic future, based on games and entertainment for people who don't live in Philadelphia, who aren't going to be on our town watch or growing fruit at the community garden, who aren't sending their kids to our schools and building the strength of our neighborhoods.

It gets back to the question of who are we building this city for and whose voices count in that process?

The ultimate litmus test in terms of "urban design"

would be if people actually wanted to live upstairs from the Gallery and its accompanying casino. Not a hotel, actual full-time residential. Preferably ownership, in this case, at market rate by a liberal number of folks who can afford to hire lawyers or better yet who are lawyers to sue when the operator of the casino drops the ball in terms of looking after their impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

If they can actually sell condos to people with money to shop elsewhere who want actually want to live upstairs from a casino than they doing a decent job of planning for a high-density neighborhood friendly casino.

Anything short of that simply shows they are pushing it on people and neighborhoods they think they can push around. Bottom line.

-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

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