A Vision of the Riverfront We Are Not Allowed to Have

Many of the ideas that came out of the Penn Praxis design charette weekend are incredibly bold. We allowed ourselves to envision burying I-95 beneath a more pedestrian-friendly Columbus Boulevard with a light rail transit system. We allowed ourselves to consider reconfiguring the port facilities and bulkhead, as well as flooding South Philly’s big-box stores to reclaim the flood plain and the river’s natural edge. We allowed ourselves to imagine reusing the decommissioned Peco power plant near Penn Treaty Park as a green technology, biogas co- generation power station which could provide power locally and serve as an educational tool for future technologies.

Yet with all of these bold dreams, we are still not allowed to envision our riverfront without 2 Las Vegas-sized casinos.

Which begs the simple question: why? Why has the leadership of this riverfront planning process continually downplayed the public’s outcry against casinos on our riverfront and in our neighborhoods? Because of pressure from Mayor Street or Governor Rendell, eager for gambling tax dollars? Because of a stipulation by the William Penn Foundation, worried over the appearance of a politicized process? Or at the request of the politically-connected casino operators and investors themselves? Is this planning process merely a clever diversion intended to derail opposition to casinos?

What is it about these casinos — months from being built, now embroiled in several court appeals, facing strong opposition from residents — that gives them such privilege and presence on our riverfront?

Penn Praxis has made great overtures to us, imploring us to “participate in this civic engagement effort to design the public’s waterfront.” Citizens have spent precious evenings, away from their families, to add their voices to this promise of a plan. At the value sessions, principle sessions and monthly Advisory Group meetings, there has been a constant and vocal opposition to casinos. Most dramatically, at a public forum last month hundreds of workers from the port industry protested, fearing that the casinos will mean a loss of jobs and inhibit future expansion. What I have learned from these forums is that Philadelphians up and down the riverfront hold a wide range of values for their neighborhoods and these values are diametrically opposed to conditions that 2 bloated slots parlors will inflict on the surrounding residential neighborhoods and port industry.

The discourse about casinos in this planning process has been constrained by the leadership’s insistence that our task is to deal with the “facts on the ground.” The so-called “facts on the ground” as I interpret them indicate that the reality of not having casinos at their current proposed locations is much more probable than burying I-95 or flooding Home Depot and Wal-mart. The “facts on the ground” today are that city council, supported by 27,000 signatures, voted unanimously to place a referendum on the May ballot which restricts casinos from being built within 1,500 feet of homes, places of worship, schools, and parks.

We have heard the citizens loud and clear on this matter. Now let us respect the voices of so many Philadelphians and envision a casino- free riverfront. If we do not, I fear that this plan will continue to lose legitimacy in the minds of Philadelphians. And without that precious public buy-in we won’t be able to realize our bold dreams for the “public’s waterfront.”

Jeremy Beaudry
Fishtown