Phila. council approves casino zoning

November 13, 2008 9:19:10 PM PST
Lawmakers in Philadelphia are one step closer to bringing casino gambling to a Center City mall.Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved re-zoning legislation Thursday morning.

The outcome is the first step for the building of a Foxwoods Casino at the Gallery Mall on Market between 10th and 11th.

The sponsor of the bill, Frank DiCicco stresses this is just a preliminary step, and it will be followed by numerous hearings.

"Contrary to what people are saying, that we're rushing it, I look at it this way: We're beginning a process to look at the potential of The Gallery as a site for the casino," DiCicco said.

A number of Chinatown-based groups feel that a casino is being forced on them, and they are suspicious.

"I think there are serious questions that need to be asked. There are no answers, no studies, no plan, no proposal. We don't think they are being honest about this process," said casino opponent Helen Gym.

For this measure to be active, it has to be signed into law by the mayor.

As they departed, some of the protestors stopped by the mayor's office and delivered a letter, asking him to come to Chinatown and discuss the situation before he thinks about signing the measure. They want to talk to him directly and personally about the concerns they have about a casino just south of their community.

Over the past 50 years, Chinatown lost 25 percent of its land as a result of public projects, from the creation of Independence Mall just blocks away to the building of an expressway and convention center. Yet it has kept out a baseball stadium and a prison.

Now, the battle-hardened community has a new fight on its hands, staging protests, crowding City Council chambers and organizing a petition drive to keep out a 3,000-slot machine casino. An estimated 600 people marched from Chinatown to City Hall for a hearing last month.

"We're just tired of having to fight these battles over and over again," said Deborah Wei, principal of a 400-student charter school built on land where the stadium would have risen. "We are a small community that's been disproportionately hit by these projects."

The cards appear to be stacked against them this time.

Slot machine gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2004 to help raise money to cut taxes. Partly to ensure communities didn't thwart those plans, the state took charge of licensing, leaving cities the power only to assure zoning compliance.

The developers of Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia already have a license to build a slots parlor on the Delaware River waterfront in South Philadelphia. But because of fierce opposition, they have agreed to consider moving it to a 1970s-era mall in a struggling downtown retail corridor a half-block south of Chinatown.

The move has the backing of Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor Michael Nutter. City Council on Thursday designated the mall an entertainment district, a key step in allowing a casino to be built on the site.

Supporters say the location has the advantage of being close to subway and regional rail lines, would revitalize a commercial district with many empty buildings, and would help, not hurt, business in Chinatown.

------- Associated Press writers Joann Loviglio and Marc Levy contributed to this report.

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