Slots, urban design, and destination dreams

Philly Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron doesn’t think much of the recently-passed slot bill. From Philly.com (reg. required):

The legalization of slot machines in Pennsylvania was sold to the public as a form of tax relief, although tax redistribution strikes me as a better term. Harrisburg will use part of the money deposited in the parlors’ one-armed bandits to reduce the Philadelphia wage tax. If current revenue projections hold, someone earning $40,000 a year would eventually save $160 annually in city taxes. As a further incentive, Philadelphia has been promised $636 million to expand the Convention Center.

But the city will have to pay dearly for this infusion of revenue. The slots bill, which was rushed through the legislature without the usual opportunities for public comment, strips Philadelphia of planning and zoning powers over its future casinos. Instead, a seven-member, state-run gambling control board will decide the big design issues, from the location of the casinos down to the location of their garage driveways.

The city’s lack of control is no small thing. With Saturday’s vote, Philadelphia became the biggest city in America to permit casinos. Unlike the gaming halls in Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans, ours will be wedged into a dense and still-thriving downtown. At least one slots parlor – and possibly two – appear headed for Market Street, in the high-profile stretch between City Hall and Independence Mall.

That’s barely two blocks from the residential neighborhoods of Washington Square and Chinatown. Yet slots parlors the size of those planned in Philadelphia, with 5,000 machines, can draw 40,000 gamblers in a 24-hour day.

Saffron argues her case on some interesting aesthetic grounds:

Casinos and good design go together about as well as oil and water. Because gambling operators want to keep patrons at their machines as long as possible, they aim to block out anything that hints of the outside world, such as clocks and windows. Virtually every downtown casino built in America in the last decade is a solid-walled box, surrounded by a vast supply of parking spaces.

What urban good will a big box do for an eclectic urban environment like East Market Street? For that matter, what good will a big box do for the Delaware River waterfront, where another slots parlor is expected?

Let me quote Gary Tuma, spokesman for Sen. Vince Fumo (D., Phila.), who largely wrote the slots bill: The casino applicants will be judged on “their potential for producing revenue.” Gambling was not conceived as a way of improving the urban environment….

In a perfect world, Philadelphia’s slots parlors would be planned as one component in a major revitalization of dowdy East Market Street. The area has been sadly neglected even though it is a key connector between the Convention Center and the tourist district around Independence Mall. It’s vital that the casino be attractive for gamblers and non-gamblers alike.

Changing Skyline | City’s losses outstrip its slot wins

I doubt that she read Suburban Xanadu, but I think that my book makes some of the same points. Obviously, casinos are, like any business, designed to maximize revenue. In that a casino is profitable, one can say that it is well-designed.

Does this mean that it is an asset to an urban neighborhood? Not necessarily. As I said in Suburban Xanadu, self-contained casino resorts–what you find on the Las Vegas Strip, on Indian reservations, and in Atlantic City–have not proved themselves to improve any kind of “urban” fabric. A casino designed to encourage genuine interaction with the neighborhood, though, certainly could.

Another view, from the Intelligencer, holds that slots parlors won’t make too much of an immediate impact:

They may like slot machines, but don’t expect busloads of seniors clutching rolls of quarters to head for Philly Park any time soon. Senior centers and tour bus operators, many of which organize regular trips to Atlantic City, say it will take a while for now-legal Pennsylvania slot machines to compete with the lure of a trip out of town – not to mention all those discounts.

“Part of it is going away,” said Emma Straccio, manager of the Lower Bucks Activity Center for Retired and Senior Citizens. “There are more things to do in Atlantic City: the boardwalk, the ocean, and there are a lot of promotions.”

At the same time, some local tour companies are making adjustments to prepare for the tide of as much as 61,000 slot machines arriving at select locations across the state, including Philadelphia Park in Bensalem.

Lion Tours, at four trips a day, six days a week, runs as many as 100 trips a month to Atlantic City, and about 80 percent of the participants are seniors, according to Richard Tisone, vice president of the Levittown company.

He said he will definitely feel the impact of the slots bill, but he added that if it’s good for the state’s economy, “as a businessman, I’m just going to develop a different market.”
It will take some time for slots in state to compete

People are finally talking about Atlantic City as a destination. Hopefully, for that city, this will force operators to invest in non-gaming attractions. In a nutshell, they have to create a south Las Vegas Strip-east rather than a Laughlin-east.

These efforts may be paying off already, because, according to the AC Press’s editorial page, “young people” now consider the resort a happening place:

Various reports in the news media this summer indicate that, lo and behold, Atlantic City is now considered hip by 21- to 35-year-olds. This is excellent news.

Trump Marina Hotel Casino started it a couple of years ago by booking acts with more appeal to young people than to the blue-haired set. Then the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened and capitalized on the Marina’s early success by aggressively reaching out to younger people.

And now, in the summer of 2004, between the fresh acts and the beach bars, the shopping and the nightclubs and, oh yeah, the casinos, Atlantic City is suddenly hot among young people. “Atlantic City is so underrated,” says Alex Gilli, 22, uttering words that the resort’s marketers have longed to hear for years.
But our advice to tourism officials: Shush …

It is truly wonderful news that a younger generation is finding Atlantic City to be hip and cool. But as all truly hip and cool people know, once a place (or a clothing style or a band or a particular piece of slang) is perceived by the general public to be hip and cool, it is – by definition – no longer hip and cool.

So keep doing whatever you’re doing that’s helping a new generation rediscover Atlantic City – but don’t talk about it much.

Yes, I’m sure that Las Vegas wishes that it had kept itself a well-kept secret. Once word got out that famous people went there, the city really went downhill.

Maybe the editorial is a way of justifying AC’s attempt to become a destination without launching the kind of ad campaign that Las Vegas has.

If you were from Atlantic City, as I am, you wouldn’t be surprised at inaction being trumpeted as a civic virtue.

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1 thought on “Slots, urban design, and destination dreams”

  1. I’d be interested in seeing more comparison between the proposed downtown Philly casinos and Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans which sits between the Central Business District and the French Quarter which, despite the article claiming that they are not “dense and thriving”, are the epicenter of New Orleans’ tourism and convention business.

    I agree with Dave that a casino in an urban environment is not necessarily a boon to the neighborhood, but I believe that the New Orleans casino proves that it can. be done.

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