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The Center City casino test

COMMUNITY GROUPS and city officials will meet tomorrow night to discuss the prospect of a casino coming to Market East.

COMMUNITY GROUPS and city officials will meet tomorrow night to discuss the prospect of a casino coming to Market East.

While some members of the community will argue "not in my backyard," and public officials will listen to community concerns and propose solutions, all will try to grapple with the uncertainty that comes with large-scale development.

This is a familiar scenario, especially to those who worked to develop the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, where the siting of two casinos threatened to derail the 13-month process completed in November that engaged more than 4,000 Philadelphians.

Ultimately, we at PennPraxis were successful in creating a broad vision because all those interested parties at the civic, city, state and federal levels worked to establish common principles that elevated the discussion beyond the issue of single uses and single sites toward the creation of a healthy vision for the future of the waterfront.

The city and state should be able to do the same for Market East. The conversation should be fast-paced but thorough, focused and transparent. Decisions made in a compressed time frame can have negative effects that reverberate for generations.

With an opportunity to transform Market East, the city and state should act deliberately, and use citizen input to ask and answer the tough questions associated with large-scale development. These issues include the quality of design, street character and urban amenities, but also include the social, cultural and economic ramifications of large-scale development on surrounding neighborhoods.

From an urban-design perspective, the city's first priority should be to develop a vision for Market East, including the blocks above and below Market Street and from City Hall to Old City.

This plan should be based on citizens' values as well as the best urban design from around the world for quality commercial and mixed-use development.

Most important, the vision should feel like Philadelphia and build on the strength of the walkable, human-scale downtown that is the envy of cities nationwide.

To do this, the city and state can benefit from some of the work already done to guide their interactions with communities and to aid their decision-making.

Citizens can also use this information to help to shape the discussion.

Among the resources we can use in this dialogue is the work of Slots and the City (a joint project of the Daily News and PennPraxis in 2005), Mayor Street's Philadelphia Gaming Taskforce of 2005 and the Center City District's 2007 planning for Market East. (See for more details.)

All studies note the obvious strengths of Market East for intensive development: existing transportation and parking infrastructure, connections between Old City and the Convention Center area, strong mixed-use neighborhoods in every direction and several underutilized or vacant parcels. They also raise challenges, which represent important details for discussion of how to make this area successful.

These challenges include:

Active street frontages: The traditional American casino business model calls for a gaming floor divorced from the bustle of the outside world. This means walls without windows, which works against creating a vibrant experience for pedestrians. Any design should place active uses like restaurants and shops facing the streets surrounding the gaming floor to ensure we don't repeat the same mistakes of the current Gallery design.

Civic design: Market Street, along with Broad, was given pride of place in William Penn's plan for Philadelphia with its grand scale and central location.

It's no mistake that it became our great commercial gathering place. We must ensure that architectural and urban design standards for East Market are of the highest quality. We have only to look at the PSFS building from 1929 at 12th and Market for a brilliant example of high quality urbanism and sophisticated design. Today's Market Street deserves nothing less.

Underground service: One of the reasons the riverfront casino proposals appear as impenetrable blocks was the need to build them on a mound to accommodate underground service needs. If the casinos can take advantage of existing underground service space at the Gallery, this should help to keep the ground floors active.

Perpendicular connections: The streets connecting north to Chinatown and south to Thomas Jefferson University and Washington Square West must announce to visitors and residents that a vibrant city surrounds the casino in all directions. The Gallery fails to do this, visually cutting off sightlines to Chinatown from Market Street and providing blank walls of no interest to pedestrians.

Sustainability: The prospect of using existing infrastructure along East Market Street is tantalizing considering the cost to build and maintain our current systems.

Market East is at the confluence of every major rail and transit line, and building there could be a model for transit-oriented development. We should also push the design further by seeking to lower the development's carbon footprint and impact on water and energy systems.

As city, state and civic leaders prepare for tomorrow's meeting, we should seek ways to have a meaningful conversation about the future for this significant area of the city.

Market Street has a storied past and could have a bright future. Let's work together to have a real conversation on the tensions and trade-offs, benefits and challenges and imagine a future for the city based on shared values drawn from a respectful process. We owe it to ourselves and to generations to come. *

Harris M. Steinberg is executive director of PennPraxis at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.