SugarHouse Casino: Thoughts from a gentrifying homeowner in the neighborhood

The back of SugarHouse Casino on Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia on Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. Its restaurant and walkway offers pleasant views of the Delaware River and Ben Franklin Bridge.

Last month, my neighborhood helped to make Philadelphia the largest city in the country with a legally-sanctioned casino.

SugarHouse Casino opened in mid-September, as scheduled.

The six-year battle to bring casinos to Philadelphia is not one I want to remark much on. If you want to hear argue for or against the existence of casinos in urban communities, you’ve come to the wrong place. Isaiah Thompson at Citypaper is downright obsessed with reporting on why casinos are in the net bad for communities.

That’s not what I’m writing here for.

By the time I bought my home in Fishtown, the neighborhood that the casino arguably resides within, SugarHouse was already coming. That argument was over with.

What was still up for debate were two issues that I did care about, if a casino was going to come to my neighborhood.

  • I wanted the casino to embrace, enhance and help develop its portion of the Delaware River waterfront, so we could start embracing this beautiful asset of ours and do so through the sensible, efficient use of commercial development.
  • I wanted table games to supplement slots machines so, in my experience, if there was going to be gambling, it might go beyond the droning, heartless slots. (Basically, I have friends who would play blackjack for a night socially; they wouldn’t dump coins in a machine).

This weekend, I enjoyed the beautiful weather by taking a leisurely stroll through the casino’s compact 45,000 square-foot innards and the compound that surrounds it. In an hour’s time, my initial reaction was that, if a casino were to come to Philadelphia and considering much of the debate and compromise that has come with it, what SugarHouse is to date isn’t so terrible.

I can’t pound home enough that I’m not arguing here for the development of casinos along the waterfront.

In fact, I listened with great interest last month to former Mayor John Street address the showcase of an event series from Young Involved Philadelphia, in which he was speaking about groups coming together to overtake authority.

“The governor was for gaming, the mayor was for gaming, the General Assembly was for gaming,” Street said of his supportive stance in 2005. “But, in the end, the anti-gaming advocates kicked our collective behinds… They stopped something that none of us thought they could ever stop. We have a little facility down there, but we don’t have anything near what all us big hot shots wanted.”

Watch Street’s speech below, starting with his casino comment.

He was talking about the collective will limiting what SugarHouse became.

I wasn’t involved in any of those demonstrations, though I did a little reporting on the statewide issue of casinos.

Instead, I walked down Girard Avenue to Frankford Avenue across Delaware Avenue to SugarHouse to see how I felt about the casino, always with the understanding that there wasn’t anything to do about there being a gambling house there to start.

SO WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

Yes, there is a lot of surface parking, which dominates and circles SugarHouse from the approach. Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, of whom I am a great admirer, railed on its suburban-like distance from the sidewalk, threatening any chance of walkability on Delaware Avenue. (I could get behind conversations about the casino’s sustainable features, as I haven’t read any mention of innovative uses for its large roof, like solar paneling, nor anything about its expansive acreage to work with run off)

I’m no urban planning student, and certainly not a teacher like Saffron, but in her criticism, I haven’t much seen any real solution for SugarHouse to draw its expected 30,000 daily visitors, many of whom will surely be driving — not exclusively walking from neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties.

SugarHouse has sealed expansion plans, tripling its capacity and including a concert venue, banquet hall, more gaming space and a 74-foot parking garage to hold 3,000 cars, but, as Saffron points out, the casino will still not be on the sidewalk in true urban form.

But the math doesn’t work out for me.

The casino was drastically shrunk, as Street noted, in the planning stage due to outrage over its original 21-acre “megaplan.” Many of us, Saffron and myself included, wanted the casino on the waterfront, to create interaction with it — rather than relegating the Delaware to the background noise that much of the warehouse and industrial space there currently does. But, Saffron also wants it on the sidewalk.

…I don’t think the distances work out, though, again, I’m not an architect.

What I can say is, as Saffron says, it’s a rather endearing design — the entire exterior of the building is pleasant, urban and friendly. Its pedestrian walkway along the waterfront is very near to perfect and, after its expansion, will get within 150 feet of nearby Penn Treaty Park and even closer to the adjacent high-rise condominium properties, meaning that with a little work, the Delaware River waterfront could have a discernible, walkable strip nearing Center City.

And that being a 20 minute walk from my home is something I can get behind.

Watch a video from Philadelphia Neighborhoods on the casino’s opening.

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