Contrarian: Roll ‘Em on the River!

Penn’s Landing is doomed if we don’t put gambling there

Like it or not, ready or not, Philadelphia will be a gambling town just a few years from now. Under the state’s new gaming laws, two slot machine parlors will be licensed somewhere in the city by the end of 2006, and there’s little anyone can do about it. You can almost smell the casino bus fumes and hear the whoosh-whoosh of polyester pantsuits.

Gambling has been called a tax on stupidity, and most citizens would agree that if the government needs cash, a voluntary levy on suckers isn’t such a bad place to start. Gambling revenues will reduce wage taxes for Philadelphia residents by 15 to 20 percent. On a $50,000 salary, that’s about $300 in found money — assuming it doesn’t get lost at the slots. Basically, Philly’s casinos will provide a yearly bonus to every working person smart enough to avoid them.

The catch is that these two casinos will have to be built somewhere — and wherever they get built, the neighbors won’t get much sleep. Caesars has proposed a giant development on the South Philadelphia waterfront, and the community is already in a blind panic about traffic. Other rumored sites on Market Street near the Convention Center have stirred fears in Chinatown and Washington Square West about all sorts of nasty spillover effects.

The obvious remedy is to put the casinos in the single most isolated and abandoned spot in the city, a place with a proven 30-year track record of abject failure because of its unappealing distance from everything and everyone else. We need a –casino — –maybe two — at Penn’s Landing.

Proof? Back in May, City Councilman Frank DiCicco hosted a community meeting about the state gaming law. His district happens to include all the riverfront and Market Street sites that casino builders are said to be considering. Probably to ensure a good turnout, the community meeting was slated for a location in DiCicco’s district so unpopular and secluded that it offered no traffic problems, lots of free parking, and a hall that’s hardly ever used — the Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing.

The 12 lanes of traffic that divide Penn’s Landing from downtown — which have scared off every developer, restaurateur and retailer who ever considered building there — would pose no problem to casino operators accustomed to opening on far-flung American Indian reservations. The New York Times recently pointed out that some $30 billion is frittered away at casino slots every year, which is three times the total gross at all North American movie theaters, and thrice what gets spent on pornography. When you run the most profitable entertainment industry on Earth, you don’t need to worry whether compulsive gamblers can find you. Las Vegas and Atlantic City proved long ago that slots slaves will gladly drive through a desert, ride a bus for three hours, or park in a slum — just for the action.

If anything, casino operators prefer isolation. There probably isn’t a window or clock to be found on any gambling floor in the world. Casinos want to guard against some competing attraction next door tempting bettors on losing streaks to wander off. There’s little danger of that ever happening at Penn’s Landing.

A gambling venue might seem like a comedown to those who have wished for Penn’s Landing’s rebirth as a family-friendly Baltimore Inner Harbor or South Street Seaport. Maybe it’s time to admit that accidents of geography have spawned a white elephant on our waterfront, and that only gambling is likely to breathe any color into the poor beast’s pale flesh. Montreal made a similar choice more than a decade ago, when the city rejected the notion of putting its only casino at the downtown convention center. Instead, they stuck the new Casino de Montréal out on an island along the riverfront, displacing a pallid pachyderm called the Palais de la Civilisation. They traded a failing exhibit hall for a casino that draws 6.2 million visitors a year. If the Penn’s Landing project is done right — and the city’s lease with a casino outfit can ensure that it is — gambling dollars could underwrite all the shopping, dining and entertainment that previous prospective developers could never get off the ground. Complain all you like about what gambling has done to Atlantic City; as a public space, the Boardwalk is a more lively and interesting place today than it was 30 years ago, and it’s a hell of a lot more vital and prosperous than Penn’s Landing.

Of course, the neighbors in Old City and Society Hill will hate this idea. Ever since the most recent effort to find a Penn’s Landing developer failed last year, community groups up and down the east side of downtown have been pushing a plan to euthanize the site by building more dreary riverfront apartment complexes, with Wawas and dry cleaners at the ground floor. DiCicco has supported this idea, and has even introduced a toothless bill in City Council to forbid gambling along Penn’s Landing. And yet among all the sites under consideration, neighbors of this one have the flimsiest grounds for complaint. Penn’s Landing is the only spot where, for the past 30 years, every homebuyer within a half-mile radius knew all about the plans for it to become a big, traffic-choked public attraction.

That’s why the Street administration will be taking a huge risk if it fails to pursue a Penn’s Landing casino as its preferred option. The state’s Gaming Control Board has sole power over where to put the casinos, and the site selection process is an utter free-for-all. A casino company can propose building anything it wants on any site that it buys or leases. The city’s zoning code has no jurisdiction over how big or how high they can go. It’s all an immense land rush, and it may end with Philly’s two new casinos approved at whichever sites the Gaming Control Board determines will yield the most money for the state. The only way to preserve the city’s voice in the process is for it to team up with one or more casino operators, at Penn’s Landing and perhaps one other city-owned site.

Then the only way the city can screw things up is by not making the new casinos self-–contained enough. For instance, we’ll have to require any casino built on the river to account for the full range of human needs it creates right on-site. It should include a daycare center for all the kids who commonly go abandoned in casino restrooms and cloakrooms. And a police station, so the Sixth District cops don’t have to keep running over there for every pickpocket and con artist that gets off the bus. And a jail, so they can hold the crooks and run them back at off-peak hours. And finally, they’ll need to build a new boat slip, so they can take every destitute gambler without a penny to his name and treat him to a scenic one-way ride to Camden. Let Jersey deal with them. It was Jersey that started this whole gambling mess in the first place. bf