Friday, May 26, 2006

Urban Design Cliches for Any occasion

Thursday night's Casino Design Forum, which drew about 650 Philadelphians to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, was an attempt to do the impossible, which was to evaluate the city's five proposed casinos purely on urban design terms. The problem is that Philadelphia's casinos are neither very urban nor really designed. As buildings, they're more like shopping malls, whose appearance is governed by fixed design formulas. The Planet Hollywood Riverwalk is practically indistinguishable from a Target.

But that didn't stop the casino architects and planners from acting as if they were Andres Duany unveiling the latest scheme for a dense, walkable New Urbanist town. Here are some my favorite design cliches from the evening, which was sponsored by Penn Praxis and the Daily News. They just go to show that architects will say all the right things about all the wrong buildings. Every quote was uttered by a casino presenter.

"This is about connecting the community back to the river."
"This is the kind of project that, in ten years, is going to feel like it's been around 50 years."
"It respects the historic scale of the neighborhood."
"It connects to the neighborhood."

And my personal favorite, which was used to describe Foxwoods mid'-'80s theme park desiged with red brick and a vaulted, green metal roof:

"It's getting back to the kind of craft you see on City Hall."


Blogger rasphila said...

Beautiful set of cliches. Hard to believe anybody can say that stuff with a straight face.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

The presentations were weaker than anything I ever saw from undergraduate architecture students when I was a grad student in architecture school. I hope they felt as embarrassed as I did for them.

The general consensus among these "architects" seemed to be that a building scheme will do anything you tell it to do if only you just say it out load often enough. Hence, the repetition of so many empty design cliches...

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are the type of casino structures you get when Harrisburg is demanding a 53% tax rate on revenue.

Your argument should be with the state, not prospective casino ventures. They have absolutely no wiggle room for outstanding architecture.

This state and city cannot seem to get out of the dark ages. Everything they do is wrong. They forced this type of wretched architecture on the casino developers

6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the state grants Foxwoods a license, it can only mean that each member of the Pa Gaming Control Board has been bribed with loads of cash. The Foxwoods site is -- by far -- the worst possible site in Philadelphia for a casino. Everyone knows it.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with both anonymous I and II. The state keeping 53% ensured a that a lackluster casino will be built by most of the developers. Money and favors usually talk in Philly so its' any ones guess as to which projects will win. Unfortunately, the best location near the PA convention center on Market Street never materialized. Common sense would be to try and catch the tourist dollars. Anyway, I think in ten years Philadelphia will probably have 5 or 6 casinos.

11:23 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Am I the only person in the world who thinks casino revenues should be rigorously taxed? The only justification for having casinos in the first place is to raise revenues because citizens won't stand for higher taxes. If the state doesn't clear a lot of money from casinos and apply that money to public purposes, then the casinos are in danger of becoming a publicly subsidized way of exploiting the patrons, many of whom can't afford to lose the money. Oh, and to reward political cronies and contributors as well. Slots are a particularly insidious form of gambling because almost nobody who plays the slots clears anything—and the slots are habit-forming.

I'm not against gambling as such. I am against hidden taxes disguised as gambling—and especially gambling, as in slots, where the house has a huge advantage.

Sure, the high taxes are one factor contributing to the poor design of these places. But they are not the only one. The idea of a slot parlor is not to make the community more beautiful or front nicely on the river. It is to separate gamblers from their money. Any of the proposed designs will facilitate that. My guess: if the tax rate on slots revenue were 0%. the designs would be just as bad. Nice design just isn't part of the program for casino operators. Look (if you can stand it) at Las Vegas.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous ARK said...

At the forum, the ground rules were that the "morality" of casinos or their "social issues" were off limits as a topic.

But it has to be said, that the urban design forum is just a way of managing a crisis of our own making. Casinos will bring hordes of problems in the name of avoiding taxation of legitimate enterprises. It is a sign of a government that has abdicated leadership on hard questions (like how to pay for government) in favor of pandering and corruption.

With that said, the casino owners were sometimes very blunt. "We aren't going to propose ice rinks and movie theaters." "The pupose of this facility is to generate a lot of revenue for the State of Pennsylvania in order to keep taxes lower."

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Bill.Marston said...

As I remarked to a number of other attendees after the PennPraxis forum - it is about us expressing what we want out of this casino mandate. Architects and developers respond to the program they are given. If we (citizens) express what we want and we change the criteria from "just show us the money" to "become a member of our community by doing MORE than just keeping your customers' cars from jamming up our streets and our air".

So what DO we want? Media activist Aaron Couch, architect activist Gray Smith, neighborhood activists like Isabelle Buonacore (my apologies to all of you doing this whom I have forgotten or don't know) are gathering voices. In 1998-1999 the Inquirer teamed with us via Harris Sokoloff of Penn's GSE & others to bring that Mayoral campaign into a structured civic dialogue - and it WORKED. The agenda was changed from what the pols wanted to what WE wanted.

Harris Steinberg of PennPraxis knows & has worked w Sokoloff - so although we're about a year or two slower than we should have been - let's change the agenda NOW before it is too late.

Tell PennPraxis: we are ready to bend this to serve Philadelphia in the people-oriented and post-oil economy.

As far as I know, continue to reach them via Slots AT phillynews DOT com. Meanwhile, we are talking outside of the forum about how to create a City's Program of Requirements for Casino Development. We'll need someone well versed in state law on gambling, taxes etc. and on city zoning, budget, land use, developer rqmts among other things. Let's make this work FOR us and our next generations.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Foxwoods - Jersey Tacky.
SugarHouse - Location sucks, Fair design.
Pinnaicle - Like the location because it cleans that Brownfield; like the power point for the effort; can live with design because it's public usable.
Trump - Props for taking on Nicetown; but wow, just want to say, "Play it Trump Smart"?!?!? Iet, hom boi.
Riverwalk - It belongs next door to IKEA.

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with rasphila.

Putting a 53% tax on gambling revenue is a death sentence to casino developers especially considering there's 13 (soon to be 14) full blown casinos 50 miles to the east that taxes at a 7% rate. 7% means more revenue for comps, fancy hotel rooms, better restaurants, better entertainment options. 53% means bottom of the barrel amenities resulting in an all around inferior experience.

If you are a casino developer where would you rather invest?

The 53% tax rate not only predicates an inferior design it sabotages the enoromus potential benefits that gaming could have had in a great city like Philadelphia.

Philly has certainly improved its image in the past decade but I'll bet 98% of the people in the northeast part of the country have never bothered to visit Philadlephia. Done right gambling was a gigantic carrot stick for Philadlephia. It was an added incentive to lure people to the city and let them dicover what a gem of a city it is.

Imagine the Borgata or a Venetian along Delaware Avenue with Old City and Rittenhouse Square a 3 minute cab ride away? A slots box doesn't quite hold the same ambience does it?

Steve Wynn was ready to invest a billion dollar casino in Philly until he heard about the ridiculous 53% tax. He laughed and walked away. An acceptable gambling tax rate puts Philadlephia on a completely different level as a cosmopolitan city. New Yorkers instead of invading Atlantic City now invade Philadelphia bringing in ungodly amounts of money with them to spend at the casino,Rittenhouse Square and Old City. The New Yorkers are not going to come down for a slots box.They will continue to go to AC

11:23 PM

rasphila said...
Am I the only person in the world who thinks casino revenues should be rigorously taxed? The only justification for having casinos in the first place is to raise revenues because citizens won't stand for higher taxes. If the state doesn't clear a lot of money from casinos and apply that money to public purposes, then the casinos are in danger of becoming a publicly subsidized way of exploiting the patrons, many of whom can't afford to lose the money. Oh, and to reward political cronies and contributors as well. Slots are a particularly insidious form of gambling because almost nobody who plays the slots clears anything—and the slots are habit-forming.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous lance said...

The last anonymous pretty much hit it on the head. Two major problems here.

1. Slots only is a deterrent- Full blown gaming with table games brings the younger crowd and the vibrancy and excitement. You add that to the cultural,club, theater, and restaurant scene in Philly and its unmatched in this country

2.Harrisburgs 53% tax rate took the legs right out of Philadlephia's gambling potential. Philly is just not going to be able to compete with Atlantic City. Given Philly's proximity to AC they should have been granted special status. Table games and a completely restructured tax policy. Philly is going to get blown out of the water by AC.

When you get involved in something you can't do it half hearted. This slots setup in Philly is basically a joke.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous penelope said...

10 years ago a destination trip to Philly just didn't happen and for the most part it still doesn't happen.Nobody flew into Philly unless they had business or family.

However with gambling, Southwest Airlines arrival and the growth of Philadlephia International Airport the potential is there to tout Philly as a destination city.

I have to agree with many others that the approach that Harrisburg has taken on slots has been abysmal. And nowhere will it be felt more harshly than here in Philly.

The spinoffs of gambling done the right way are enormous to Philadephia. With well done casinos and full table games its not out of the question that the average couple from mid america decides to visit Philadlephia instead of NYC,SF, Chicago or Vegas.

Market East getting a makeover would also go a long way in attracting visitors.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

53% is an absurd amount of money to tax any corporation. Would you expect IKEA to pay that? No, and neither should any gaming company just because of what they do. If you don't like it, don't go in one. It is as simple as that. Harrisburg, as usual, has perpetrated an extreme disservice to Philadelphia. This bill was originally conceived as a way of saving the racetracks around the state. Frankly, it is pretty much a dying industry and the racino concept is going to bolster them for another ten years or so, until they finally falter, or some "brilliant" legislator gets another bright idea to save them.
Frankly, Philadelphia tourism is doing just fine without slots parlors. Has anyone been out on Center City streets this weekend? I was, expecting the streets to myself for a change, and boy was I wrong. The streets on Saturday were pretty packed and not by locals. The danger with the slots parlors is that they can kill any momentum the City has in terms of repackaging itself as the go-to destination. The argument needs to be made to the brain trust in Harrisburg that Philadelphia, and I suppose, Pittsburgh as well, should have exceptions to the current laws, and allow for full table games, so that the gaming companies have a chance to recover some of their investments in Philadelphia, and will give us the type of facility befitting our fair city. Or at least, not a freaking suburban mall disguised as a slots parlor! Do you think AC is worried about this, hell no.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

53% could also be considered a safe guard against Philly NOT becoming Atlantic City. Where as AC uses Gambling as an initial DRAW to their city, PA sees it as an add on feature to why you should visit Phily and Pittsburg.
We only want PART of the pie, not all of it...

but the argument that the taxes is whats keeping the design bad, doesn't hold water, since you start cutting costs and anemities after you realize you won't hit budget. Not in the beginning when you want to fool people into thinking your doing this amazing thing.

9:46 AM  
Blogger plaidpony said...

I was really disappointed in the presentations, and while the 53% tax might be high, I don't believe it is responsible for a lack of good design sense. I understand the limitations of having a site that is really too small for the proposed project, and so I found myself wondering through the presentations why if the sites are too small are they proposing these projects on these sites. The Sugarhouse project looks like a giant box, and while we can blame the need for parking, it doesn't fix the fact the we will be stuck with a huge box. Even if they did green the roof, what good does that do from the street? Riverwalk could be anything depending on what sign you plaster to the side - it has to be the least thoughtful of all of them. Why on earth would you want to construct a huge wall blocking the river? Foxwoods was obviously trying, but maybe tried too hard. They ended up with a huge jumble of a mess that doesn't make any sense. (I had to laugh out loud when they said they were trying to evoke City Hall with their use of materials. Sorry, I know it was rude, but I couldn't help it.) Pinnacle may look nice if you arrive by water, but I'm concerned that the only view we have seen is one we will never actually see in reality. I am against having a casino at all on the waterfront, or anywhere for that matter, but if we are ultimately forced to accept this in our neighborhood I hope we can do a lot better than this. Box bog sprawl has already encroached on our city moving closer and closer to the heart of it. We can't let it swallow us whole.

10:10 AM  
Blogger JRoth said...

It's absurd that Anonymous & others are using the tax rate to defend the casinos for poor design - if they don't like the tax rate, they are more than welcome to stay away. The only reason to permit gambling casinos in PA is to raise revenues. I agree with rasphila that it's shameful that people are unwilling to be legitimately taxed for the services they demand form the state, but setting that aside, casinos are a pernicious form of development, and the rosy image of people spending an hour at the casino and then taking a cab to Rittenhouse (in February. in the sleet) is a fallacy.

The casino operators will make plenty of profit - again, they wouldn't be here if they didn't expect to - and the citizens of PA, who are granting them the right to make that profit, have every right to make what demands they see fit. And that includes good urban design (insofar as that's compatible with an anti-urban use such as slots parlors).

12:59 PM  
Blogger JRoth said...

I actually came over here (from City Comforts)not to argue about casino economics, but to talk about urban design cliches. Here's the thing:

As with all cliches, there's legitimate maning behind all of these. And, in fact, all of them have been used to accurately describe a pretty successful brownfield project adjacent to Pittsburgh's East Carson Street Historic District. South Side Works has replaced a 50 foot high blank wall of a steel mill with 3 and 4 story mixed-use, historically-scaled (in detailing) buildings set within an extension of the historic street grid that now reaches the river. I don't like everything about it, but it exemplifies why those phrases have become cliches, and how successful a project can be when they actually take meaning.

1:14 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

As with all cliches, there's legitimate maning behind all of these.

I assume that "maning" is a typo for "meaning." Correct?

11:28 AM  
Blogger rasphila said...

jroth is correct about cliches. I'd go a little further, in fact: it's not a cliche, at least not in the negative sense that we usually mean by the term, if it applies meaningfully to the situation. The problem with the casino presentations was that the descriptions were just boilerplate that had almost no relation to the actual designs under discussion. All that junk about historic scale and connecting the neighborhood to the river and on and on was just a series of random phrases to put a good face on things. You can't build a big box with a parking lot that maintains the historic scale of any old neighborhood. And none of the neighborhoods involved are that excited about having a casino on their territory, so anything about benefits to the neighborhood had to be pure disinformation.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you taken a look at Pittsburgh? The proposals for Pittsburgh are similar to Philadelphia. I really don't think these casino proposals are going to save downtown Pittsburgh.


11:01 AM  

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