June 13th Testimony to City Council Rules Committee

Founding member of NABR, Shawn Rairigh, presented the following testimony to the Philadelphia City Council Rules Committee on Wednesday, June 13, 2007, opposing zoning legislation for Sugarhouse Casino and in support of legislation that would prohibit casinos from being built within 1500 feet of homes, schools, and places of worship:

Thank you, members of Council, for allowing me to testify:

My name is Shawn Rairigh. I am a resident of Fishtown and am a professional city planner by trade with 7 years experience at a private architecture and planning firm in Center City. I have my Masters in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania and even started my career with an internship at the City Planning Commission. Mostly why I am here today, however, is because I am a founding member of NABR, Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront. We are an activist group that focuses on community-driven planning and got together over a year and a half ago, in response to the large development pressure being put on the waterfront area of Fishtown and Northern Liberties. As you may know, there have been nearly a doxen condo towers and other projects haphazardly proposed and approved, without any overarching plan or community vision directing them. Sugarhouse is just the latest unplanned project, though its presence will in fact endanger the realization of all the others – after all, no one will buy a house or condo that close to a casino of this scale.

Let me first remind Council about the uniqueness of the waterfront area in Fishtown. This is the only neighborhood in the entire city with dense urban fabric on both sides of Interstate 95. We are also home to Penn Treaty Park, the only large green space along the entire Delaware Riverfront. In any effort to extend the city back to the River, our neighborhood is the best beachhead.

The Sugarhouse proposal is of a size and scale that is wholly inappropriate and in fact destructive to this fine-grained area. Allow me to offer some comparisons, so you may better understand the proposal. At full build-out, Sugarhouse will contain 3.6 million square feet, including their garage. This is larger than the King of Prussia Mall, (2.9 million square feet of leasable space) but on a much, much smaller site. Sugarhouse at full build-out will have 5,000 slot machines. The largest casino in Las Vegas, the MGM Grand, has 3,200 slots. Of course, the MGM Grand has table games, while Sugarhouse currently does not, but both have similar sized casino floors – 171,000 square feet at MGM Grand, 151,000 square feet at Sugarhouse. Sugarhouse envisions a 4,000 car garage, among the largest in the city. Into this, they say, will flow over 40,000 people each and every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – more patrons than a sold-out Phillies game. And since a good portion of Phillies fans take transit or ride at 2.5 persons/car to games, there will actually be more cars associated with the casino. With the two proposed casinos, we will be adding the traffic of almost three sold-out Phillies games to Delaware Avenue each weekend day, forever. Of course, I might also mention that the Phillies stop serving after the seventh-inning stretch.

Let me also remind Council that these are just the first two casinos. In choosing these two companies and sites, the Gaming Control Board described them as perfect “bookends” to a waterfront entertainment district. If we cannot stop or move these two casinos, we will set a bad precedent.

I am also NABR’s representative to the Advisory Committee of the Central Delaware Waterfront Plan. As such, I can tell you that Sugarhouse’s proposal follows few of the recommendations that have come after months of hard work. Their large site is not broken up by extending the street grid; their buildings are set back from the street, leaving lawns and driveways creating a permanent suburban environment for over 400 feet along Delaware Avenue. The whole of 17 acres is given over to a single use and single set of users, instead of the truly urban mix of uses the Praxis Plan envisions.

So what should go on these sites instead of casinos? NABR, with much volunteer effort, held an open public charette at the end of April this year, where we invited anyone who cared to come, to plan for these sites. For more than 4 hours, around 45-50 community members, including around 8 design professionals, gathered together to plan these sites – the only restriction being “no casinos.” The best moment for me had to be the lady from South Philadelphia who was so excited by the prospect of making the Foxwoods site a park to rival FDR Park (the eastern half of South Philadelphia has almost no park space), she quietly took a blank map and sat alone drawing her ideal park, complete with bandstand, splash pond, swimming beach, climbing walls, ballfields, and everything else she could imagine. We compiled everyone’s ideas into a site plan and renderings and development package. You will see these communities are decidedly not anti-development. The program for the Sugarhouse site included 440,000 sq. ft. of residential space, and 70,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, and a 5 acre park, all at the scale of the surrounding neighborhood. The Foxwoods site yielded over 800,000 square feet of condos and apartments, 100 townhouses, 80,000 sq. ft. of commercial space and a 8 acre park – twice the size of Rittenhouse Sq..

Simply said, these sites are huge in their urban context and could usefully extend the city’s urban fabric to the river’s edge, and instead are being considered for gargantuan suburban single-use projects that will block views, block access, endanger their nearby neighborhoods, and provide a dangerous precedent for our waterfront.

I urge you to vote against Councilman Ramos’ bills, and in favor of Councilman DiCicco’s 1,500 ft buffer. Thank you.