Tuesday, June 16, 2009

More Paving on the Delaware

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation replaced the do-nothing Penns Landing Corp. only a few months ago, but already it seems to be succumbing to the same temptations. Chief among them: Paving over the Delaware.
As Jennifer Lin reports in today's Inquirer, the board of the new corporation is busy negotiating a lease with the yet-unbuilt Sugarhouse Casino that would give them the right to use the former incinerator site at the foot of Spring Garden Street for "overflow parking." That 11-acre site, which includes the adjacent Festival Pier, is one of the most marketable properties in the corporation's portfolio. Just a block from the Spring Garden stop on the Market-Frankford El, the waterfront site has the most potential to be integrated into Center City's fabric. So what gives with the casino lease?
Andy Altman, the departing Commerce Director and City Hall's champion of waterfront development, told me in an interview yesterday that the lease will only go into effect if SugarHouse decides to build a garage on its waterfront property, located a few blocks north near Girard Avenue. It will need to shift parking during the garage construction.
Right now, however, the casino operator isn't aiming that big. It plans only to build a slots barn and a very large surface parking lot on its 20 acres. But assuming business takes off, the operators say they will eventually build a 5,000-car garage. If that does happen, Altman insists that the incinerator site will be used for SugarHouse's overflow parking for, at most, 14 to 16 months. Meanwhile, the waterfront corporation earns a few bucks (a number to be determined, Altman says) from the lease.
There are a few problems with all of this. Most obviously is the symbolism of using the Delaware waterfront's prime development site to park cars. Haven't we had enough of this already? Especially when Mayor Nutter's Greenworks plan calls for 3,200 paved acres to be made porous to solve a different kind of "overflow problem" - water runoff. (See column immediately below) Then, as one corporation board member remarked to me, "I've never seen a surface lot disappear." That may be a slight exaggeration, but once a public agency discovers it can make money off parking, it's hard to let go. How hard will the DRWC try to market this parcel when it expects revenue from SugarHouse? The market may be in coma now, but it's bound to revive in a year or two. Will DRWC be stuck with SugarHouse's cars?
I did a little time-line calculation based on current expectations for SugarHouse and the implementation of the city's waterfront goals. In the best case, SugarHouse would open its slots barn in April 2010. Let 's say it takes another year to decide that the business warrants building a garage. If it starts construction in April 2011, the garage won't be finished until August 2012. That's being optimistic.
Compare that with DWRC's schedule: It hires a waterfront master planner this summer. The planning work wraps up around December 2010. Based on the recommendations in that plan, the city begins to solicit developers for the incinerator site shortly after the plan comes out. Say that takes a year. That brings us to December 2011.

What happens if the SugarHouse cars are still parked there? More likely, SugarHouse won't have started its garage by December 2011. The city says that if it has a developer for the incinerator site, it will find another site for SugarHouse's overflow parking.
The point is, all that is pretty far down the road and there are many unknowns. So why the rush to negotiate a lease now with a casino operator who hasn't even installed a single slot machine?
(Painting "SugarHouse and the Divide" by Noel Hefele )


Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe this is why he's leaving

8:58 AM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Oh my. Slots casinos are a bad way to fund the state, and paving over precious riverside adds insult to injury. You nailed this one.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't tell which is worse - the spread of Sugarhell's parking all over our waterfront or the idea of a 5000-car garage on their site. For reference, the giant wall of garages at the airport holds 10K cars.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Ella said...

This is insanity. What is planned for Sugarhouse and the Market Street location is outrageous. Philadelphians need to wake up to what our state and city officials are imposing on us and send them an overwhelming message to leave Philadelphia out of the casino equation. We WILL find another legitimate means to raise revenue for our city. Casinos cannot be part of our unique national history as the birthplace of our country. This has to STOP!

1:23 PM  

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