Gather round, folks. It's time once again for Philadelphia to play everyone's favorite game of chance: Choose a casino location.
It's been seven years since the city went through the arduous exercise of evaluating site proposals for two state-mandated slots parlors - only to find it had been subjected to a bait-and-switch of historic proportions. What Philadelphia was promised during that process were a pair of glamorous entertainment complexes packed with hotel and condo towers, theaters, and restaurants. What the city got instead was a Walmart-size barn with slot machines called SugarHouse.
Now, because one of the state's handpicked licensees, Foxwoods, went bust, the city gets to roll the dice again on its second casino. The deadline for applications is Nov. 15 and from three to six bids are expected. While the state Gaming Control Board will decide the winner in late 2013, the city can start lobbying now for a project that is more than a suburban-style highway box.
Bart Blatstein, the developer behind Northern Liberties' transformative Piazza project, has already offered a template for what that urban alternative might look like. Last week, at a high-end version of an all-you-can-eat buffet - one that drew a pack of political heavyweights - Blatstein rolled out a $700 million casino-and-shopping proposal for the former Inquirer and Daily News building at Broad and Callowhill Streets called "The Provence."
It's easy to make fun of the plan's kitschier aspects, such as the faux French village perched on the casino roof. But if you strip away the architecture and focus on the project's components, there is no doubt that the mix of retail, restaurants, spas, and theater ups the ante for the rest of the pack. This is really a shopping mall with a casino attached, and it is a less destructive, more modern way to package gambling in a city such as Philadelphia.
Unlike the proposals we saw in the first round, Blatstein's casino development would occupy a downtown location that is just as easy to reach by foot or transit as by car. The site plan reflects - celebrates, actually - that urban condition with a prominent entrance and street-level restaurants. If the other applicants expect to be credible, they're going to have to match that urban sensibility.
It's not clear how serious the six possible contenders are, but on Thursday an operator announced interest in the Holiday Inn site on Packer Avenue. The word on the street is that operators are looking at a Delaware waterfront site north of SugarHouse as well as sites on East Market Street, across from the Convention Center, and in Nicetown.
While any of the developers could, theoretically, come up with a better mixed-use design than Blatstein's, the car-oriented locations start with a disadvantage. They're too far off the beaten track to lure free-spending tourists and conventioneers. SugarHouse, it should be noted, has yet to produce a single spin-off business, unless you count a short-lived pawnshop across the street. The Provence and the other downtown sites have the advantage of being close to the Convention Center.
Of course, you can already hear the wails of opposition echoing across the city. Not downtown! Not in the historic newspaper tower! It feels good to shut your eyes, cover your ears, and announce you're firmly opposed to gambling.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia doesn't have a choice in the matter, not since former Gov. Ed Rendell and then-State Sen. Vince Fumo rammed through a bill in 2004 that legalized two gaming parlors here and took zoning control away from the city. The most productive thing the Nutter administration can do now is work to amass political support at home and in Harrisburg so it can get the best deal, economically and civically.
The strength of Blatstein's proposal, designed by Las Vegas' Steelman Partners, is that it updates the casino form. For years, top casinos in Vegas, Singapore, and Macao have been devoting more floor space to what are called "non-gaming activities." Their owners now earn more than half their revenue from stores, restaurants, concerts, and convention meetings, making the casino a kind of a loss leader.
Given that Pennsylvania taxes gambling revenue at 54 percent, while everything else pays a much lower rate, it makes sense for a developer to pack in the non-gaming stuff. At Provence, the retail and entertainment will occupy as much, if not more, floor space than the actual casino.
You also have to give Blatstein credit for cannily zeroing in on a site that is simultaneously urban and auto-friendly. While the Provence would be sited on Callowhill Street like any downtown building, with a large glass facade oriented toward the Center City skyline, its front door would face the I-676 cloverleaf linking the New Jersey and Pennsylvania suburbs. The access gives it an advantage over a rumored downtown competitor, the parking lot at Eighth and Market Streets.
Blatstein's proposal calls for a large new structure on Callowhill, between 15th and 16th Streets. The casino would occupy the entire second floor and span 15th Street into The Inquirer's old newsroom, a vast, soaring space. Blatstein says he would make the newspaper tower, which fronts Broad Street, into a hotel, preserving a historic building.
At the west end of the project, he would erect a sky bridge over 16th Street to provide access to an existing, 800-car parking garage. An additional 600 spaces would be built under the new casino structure, while 300 more could fit on the ground floor of the newsroom building. The total - 1,700 spaces - is about half the size of the garage SugarHouse wants to build on the waterfront. More important, Blatstein insists he can reach that number without building a new aboveground parking structure. The huge garages, as much as the demands of gambling, are what make casino buildings so unattractive.
It has been 13 years since Blatstein acquired the Schmidts Brewery site, and he's learned quite a bit about urban projects. The Provence would have a walkable sidewalk along its entire Callowhill side, as well as five restaurant and retail lots along the street. There is no porte-cochere drop-off. Instead, cars would be valet parked in the back, from an entrance off 16th Street.
Visitors arriving by foot would enter a high-ceilinged lobby. Borrowing a popular feature from Las Vegas' Bellagio, Blatstein envisions a giant "conservatory" greenhouse on the ground floor. Gamblers would take an escalator to the 120,000-square-foot casino, which would include a smaller, 25,000-square-foot VIP section aimed at high rollers.
Those uninterested in gambling could keep riding the escalator to the third level. This is where Blatstein envisions his French village, a three-level theme park of shopping, nightlife, and spas, and a 2,200-seat concert hall. Think of it as NewMarket in the sky.
A stucco Versailles, however, would be all wrong, not just as architecture, but as branding. Blatstein can't seem to resist the urge to replicate European architecture, even though it's impossible for a commercial project to build it in a way that isn't completely tacky. Years ago, he proposed a version of the Spanish Steps at Penn's Landing, and his first design for the Piazza was styled to look like the Piazza Navona.
The architects who completed the Piazza, Erdy McHenry, ultimately persuaded him to build in a modern style that captured the essence of Philadelphia's rough-edged urbanity. A casino with an urban theme needs a design that conveys that quality - say, something along the lines of Andre Balazs' Standard Hotel in New York, similarly perched over the High Line. Or, put Northern Liberties on the roof. It's a good bet that this is not the last version of the Provence we'll see.
As Philadelphia knows too well, developers seeking casino licenses start by trotting out gauzy renderings of Paris, France, but end up building something more like Paris, Texas. What if Blatstein calls it quits after building the second-story casino?
He insists that won't happen because his tight urban site requires him to construct the entire project at once. "Even if it's physically possible to build in phases," he says, "I won't do it."
Good to hear the strong words. But this time the city should get it in writing.