Stacking the deck in Philly’s favor

Gaming is coming to Philadelphia. Legislation passed last summer in Harrisburg has paved the way for the city to receive two 5,000-slot-machine gaming parlors by 2007, and City Hall has no legal say in their location or design.

That’s the bad news.

The silver lining—other than the promised wage tax cuts parlor profits will yield—is that Penn Design students are getting involved in finding a slot solution for the city.

Over a recent weekend, 22 teams of design students took part in a charrette—an intensive two-day planning competition—to grapple with the implications of bringing casinos to Philadelphia and to come up with some theoretical designs. The Philadelphia Daily News partnered with Penn to give the charrette—titled “Slots and the City?”—public exposure and to encourage ongoing debate about the issue. Mayor Street showed his support for the students’ input, too. During a panel discussion that kicked off the weekend competition he expressed outrage that the city had been blindsided in the initial decision, but assured the audience that, “while we may not have legal authority, we are going to exercise our duty as officers of this city to have our say.”

Harris Steinberg, who organized the charrette as executive director of Penn Praxis, the school’s design clinic, was excited to have the opportunity to enter the conversation but cautioned the students that their role was to offer the first glimpse of what gaming parlors in Philadelphia could look like, rather than to debate the pros and cons of the issue.

Students were given two possible sites to consider, one on the Delaware Waterfront, the other on a lackluster block of Market Street near the Convention Center, and they were charged with envisioning not just what the casino would look like, but how it would be integrated into the surrounding urban fabric.

That larger vision, says Steinberg, came through loud and clear in the winning designs that were announced at the end of the weekend. The winners for the Market Street site featured a spiral ramp leading from the SEPTA station to a slot-filled atrium, with shops, restaurants and a theater at street level. On the waterfront, the winning team created an elegant scheme called “A Thousand Bridges—A Thousand Drops” that incorporated a cantilevered casino over Columbus Boulevard, a hotel, a park and other residential and retail amenities occupying piers on the Delaware.

“It was wonderful to see the gaming aspect of it minimized,” says Steinberg. “The emphasis was on quality urbanism, with a mixture of uses and a focus on density and life. The casino became a piece of something as opposed to an end in itself, and that’s a major lesson I’d like to move forward on.” If we think of it just as gaming, he said, we’re not going to come out ahead, but “if we think of it as part of a reclamation of key parts of the urban fabric that are frayed,” everybody wins.

In his briefing materials Steinberg had urged the students to work toward a contemporary Philadelphia style and not be “myopically in love with its red brick past.” He was gratified to see that the charrette drawings included “lots of glass and lots of metal,” and that they “understood Philadelphia, but weren’t overly reverential to the hallowed past.”

As the jury selected its winners at the end of the 30-hour design marathon, Mayor Street paid a second, surprise visit where he requested a distillation of everything the students had learned and also assigned students to report to his gaming task force. “The mayor has taken the lead in being the public face behind this,” said Steinberg. “He has the indignation, but he also realizes we have the strength and talent here in Philadelphia.”

Originally published on February 24, 2005