SIX YEARS AGO, lawmakers in Harrisburg legalized gambling, and mandated two casinos to open in Philadelphia. Given the protests, conflicts - and lawsuits - that action prompted, those six years have felt like 26.
So when SugarHouse, the first casino in the city, opened 10 days ago, we wanted to see what opponents consider the personification of evil and community decline looked like. Would Satan be doing the valet parking?
Our first impression of the actual casino: A noisy, neon-lit ashtray.
Casinos have enjoyed a pass on the city's smoking laws, and we have to admit that entering a smoking building in the 21st century brings on an odd nostalgia: How did we ever live like this?
And more to the point, why is it that slots players don't merit concern about secondhand smoke?
For more substantial and informed impressions, we relied on Harris Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis, part of the University of Pennsylvania. Steinberg is best known for leading a citizen planning process for the central Delaware waterfront. Before that, he led a design forum in 2006 in which more than 600 citizens got an early look at the plans for the proposed casinos.
DN: When you recall the design forum and the principles you laid out for casino designers to think about, how did Cope Linder Architects [SugarHouse's designers] do?
They listened to some and responded well, others are off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter big-box casino responses. On the plus side, the riverwalk is really quite beautiful. They gave a gift to the city that should be appreciated.
And they've set the bar for future landscaping, paving and trailmaking for the city as a whole.
Talk about the riverwalk. What do you see?
Right now, it's about 200 yards long, so it's a small piece of a path in the future that will be much longer, six to seven miles or more.
There's both soft gravel and hard surfaces. They've given a lot of thought to using more materials, to soften the edges of the riverfront. It's really quite lovely.
When the landscaping matures, there will be great shade. As it matures, the casino will just become just a piece of a larger whole, and that's the positive part of it; it's not dependent on the casino but part of a larger design.
But you don't know it's here, everything is designed to funnel you into the casino, there's no design clue.
Does the building's exterior capture you?
It's essentially a high-class Best Buy or Target.
They've shied away from the glitzy and neon-encrusted Las Vegas type of casino. It's pretty demure. That's not a bad thing.
The real question: How do they deal with the acres of surface parking which ring it and keep you from feeling it's a pedestrian part of the city?
What about the interior? It strikes us as a nightmare - blinking lights, blaring music, people sitting at machines pushing buttons.
That's the model of the American casino - a 24-hour environment that dulls the senses and keeps you focused on the activity inside. I've been to casinos in Europe where the casino is in a corner of a bar, diffuse and distributed. But we have a high tax rate, so they have to produce a lot of revenue.
The machines are designed to addict people. Despite the hyper-bombarding of senses, people go into cocoon, they establish this one-on-one relationship with the slots machines.
But obviously the people inside are really happy with these elements. So shouldn't the exterior of the building mirror the inside? Is it kind of false to present a calm, unobtrusive outside when the inside is so different?
We go by buildings every day, and we have no idea what's going on inside of them.
The exterior skin and relationship to the city is a different relationship than to the interior use. So the designers should be credited with designing a building that is tasteful and adds a very beautiful riverwalk, that acknowledges its part as part of a mature, sophisticated city that is not Las Vegas.
You know, the classic tradition of a Philadelphia rowhouse, early on, was meant to be very plain. The interior is where you could show your wealth. These were Quaker principles.
So why is the riverwalk so important?
Well, there's two paths, really, of two different materials, a gravel path that's great for running, and a hard surface. They're separated by plantings. All these plants will grow into a lush edge. Imagine 10 or 15 years from now, running past here, and not knowing there's a casino here.
One of the main principles of the civic vision is creating as large a naturalized area as possible to help with storm-water runoff and pollutant filtration, so this is all consistent with that.
This is a tantalizing peek into what the rest of the Delaware waterfront could be; people have been dying to get down to the edge to see the river they had never seen. This will get people down to the river in a substantial way. Look, people are already using it, they're out here.
Though it's so small, you'll get to the end, and say, "I want more."