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While Council sleeps on zoning, Terry Gillen talks casino deals, Sugarhouse on Market Street
This morning, City Council is expected to pass two bills that will re-zone the Gallery to a gambling district (CED), and re-designate an area from 6th to Broad Streets and Arch to Chestnut Streets as an area where a gambling zone "would be permissible."
For one of the City’s biggest projects, this could likely be the most fast-tracked in history. No plans, no proposals, no studies, and worse no questions. A Saturday Council hearing on November 1st saw up to 1,000 people in the streets, five hours of testimony from 60 speakers, and not a single question or dialogue among Council members before they unanimously voted it out of committee – adding a caveat that the rules would be suspended to set a special Nov. 6th hearing for first reading and that the Nov. 13th hearing would allow both a second reading and a vote on the same day.
City officials are silencing questions and asking Philadelphians to take a wait and see approach. But last month Mayoral advisor Terry Gillen gave a videotaped talk at the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association that gives troubling insight into the zoning legislation and what really is at stake – and perhaps, most troubling of all, the active role the administration might have as Foxwoods’ potential business partner in the Market East location.
It’s a long meeting (you can see the full video below), so I’ll help break it up for you:
First, the CED legislation is NOT exploratory in nature:
Contrary to city officials claiming that the CED legislation would only allow them to "explore" the Market East site, Gillen speaks candidly that the City and Foxwoods and the PA Gaming Control Board (PGCB) have an understanding that the CED could form the basis for a site license change – a process she said no one had done before and that city officials were "making up." She also implies how premeditated this is because they want things to happen before there's any possibility of the election impacting on the PGCB's make-up.
But what the city is agreeing to do is to try and get them some zoning started in the, with the city council zoning process which will give them at least some assurance that they’re not going to have, that the city won’t oppose them, which is what our position was on the waterfront. And that they can then take that assurance to go up to the Gaming Control Board in Harrisburg this fall, which I think is still their plan – try to get the gaming control board to bless the new site, so that they, because no one‘s moved a casino yet. This is all a new process. We are literally making up that process. But the thinking is that they will go up to the Gaming Board sometime this fall ideally. Because, of course, when the elections happen, I mean you think Philly is nuts, you should be in Harrisburg. It’s just wild there. And the Democrats are of course hanging on to leadership in the House by barely one vote. So there is a little nervousness that if the caucuses change over in Harrisburg there, that the membership of the Gaming Control Board will change. Who knows if that’s true, so at any rate they are trying to get that done this fall.
And if they get their gaming license through or get some sort of nod that they can go through with it, then we’ll finish the local process and go on through the whole planning and design process which will require an extensive review before the City Planning Commission. They’ll have to talk about traffic and design and what does it look like and what color’s the paint and all that stuff which is what we would do after the first of the year. And then they, if there’s moves, they want to start fitting out the Gallery next year. They would like to be up and running, you know, within a year.
Nice. I always like it when City officials plan open houses before studies. Although insiders may think that’s what’s expected, the idea that the zoning CED is the possible basis for a site license change prior to plans of development being submitted is in no way what has been presented to community members or the public.
Second, is the administration talking about moving Sugarhouse to Market East?
At two different points, Gillen reinforces the City’s opposition to Sugarhouse at the waterfront and implies that city officials have spoken internally of moving Sugarhouse to the Market East area.
Here she talks about how the City has discussed moving Sugarhouse:
Woman:What are the alternatives that are being offered to Sugarhouse? What attractions are we offering them as far as location?
Gillen: We haven’t had any conversations with them about moving. Like literally, we haven’t had a location conversation.
Woman: So you have no idea, you and the mayor have no idea where . . .?
Gillen: Oh no, we have an idea. That wasn’t your question. Your question wasn’t do I have an idea. Your question was what alternatives have we offered to Sugarhouse and the answer is we haven’t offered any. No, we’ve done internal thinking about where we would do it, but I’m not prepared to talk about this so, because then I'm negotiating publicly and sort of giving everything away.
And here she talks specifically about Sugarhouse and Market East:
I mean I know there’s a lot of complaining going on, but, let me tell you, if Foxwoods moves to the Gallery, it is a home run for this city. I mean, to take a disastrous location that will clog up the waterfront and would cause a traffic nightmare, and put it into a possible revitalization of the central business district – it’s not in Chinatown, it’s on Market Street – and to put it at the possible revitalization of a central business district for Philadelphia would be huge. It makes sense from so many levels that I think it’s . . . And actually I think . .and we had this question from the Inquirer editorial board, do you think Sugarhouse will want to move to that location too? I mean I don’t know if they will, but it just makes so much sense for them now.
Why would speculation by Terry Gillen be relevant? Because there are two bills on the table today. It’s not just the re-zoning of the Gallery, it’s the second bill which designates a far broader area as I mentioned above: 6th to Broad Streets, Arch to Chesnut Streets. And it’s the reason a lot of groups, neighborhood organizations and others are deeply worried that something far more sinister is afoot, especially as Mother Nature and history seem to be working against Sugarhouse’s waterfront locale.
Finally, is the City paving the way to become Foxwoods’ business partner in the Market East deal?
City officials like Gillen have been doing the doom and gloom scenario all over the city – portraying themselves as the passive victim of (truly) unjust state legislation. But in this section Gillen clarifies that it’s actually the City who owns the Gallery.
Terry Gillen: One of the things we like about the Gallery location is, that a lot of people don’t know, is the City owns the Gallery.
Woman: They own the ground underneath?
TG: Nope the Gallery. Check it out. We own the Gallery literally. . . Redevelopment Authority, I’m the Executive Director right now. We got a long-term lease to PREIT and, so there’s just a lot of authority with the Gallery. So I think we can protect a lot of our . .
As you can imagine this raises a number of interesting questions about what kind of sweetheart deal the city may be structuring with Foxwoods and the local owners (Rubin, Snider, et. al.). This group has been fairly transparent about their desire to get back the $150 million they lost on the waterfront pre-development. Will they recoup it through a lease or development subsidy? are there tax breaks or other incentives that highlight possible opportunity cost losses especially when we’re facing serious budget problems in our city?
At this point do we even know what we don’t know about this site?
A lot more people are weighing in now. This isn’t just about Chinatown after all. This is about the City itself. Terry Gillen in this video explains that talks are already underway with SEPTA about how to structure their marketing pitch to drive transit riders to this site. She talks about how this will be the first urban casino in the country to rely on mass transit and pedestrians. That means Market East, more than any other location, isn’t about capturing new dollars from tourists and out-of-towners. This casino is about the "noon-time lunch crowd" (as Gillen has said), it’s about our neighbors, co-workers, grandparents, and youth, and about exposing the maximum number of people to gambling in the heart of Philadelphia.
It’s the reason why groups as diverse as neighborhood civics to faith-based organizations to design groups like SCRUB and heck, even DAG, are saying STOP on the zoning vote and let’s put some brakes on this thing. Yesterday Chinese Christian Church and Center delivered 24,000 signatures to the Mayor himself decrying the casino proposal and demanding a responsible re-siting process.
A national Asian American CDC umbrella group decried the Gallery casino proposal and process, noted that casinos were predatory industries which preyed on Asian communities in particular and said: "This time, National CAPACD will join its member organizations in Philadelphia to support their cause, bringing with us over 100 member organizations from across the country to weigh in on this matter."
Now what kind of open and transparent process looks at that and says, thank you for your opinion, and moves forward? It didn’t happen at the waterfront; is the heart of our city any less valuable?
Tomorrow don’t expect that Council’s actions speak for themselves.
This ball is in the Mayor’s court – from the backdoor August 21st deal to the side conversations that has every prominent political player, city commissioner, foundation head, and business leader lining up behind it and remaining mum on any hint of dissent.
It’s not the new day we were sold; unfortunately, it feels a whole lot like the same old ways we’re used to.