Sunday, July 10, 2005

Huge casino perils Downtown's profile - Think Again

Huge casino perils Downtown's profile
Planners worry how building could change the look of cityscape

Imagine dropping a building nearly the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the Downtown riverfront. Or in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Or near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Think again!
Rather than the massive new building as a casino, I think we should sell the new, under-performing, high-cost to maintain, convention center, owned by the SEA (Stadium and Exibition Authority) and make it the casino.

Sell it now, or soon.

That's the deal for Pittsburgh. The casino operators can re-tool it for the slots and allow for business to flow with the conventions.

Turn the Convention Center into the Slots Parlor. In a way, this is a move to privatize the convention center and get it off the backs of the government officials.

Face it, the convention center and the casino are going to be either friends or foe on each and every convention that comes to town. Put the ownership under the same, white elephant, sloped roof.


Anonymous said...

Huge casino perils Downtown's profile

Planners worry how building could change the look of cityscape

Sunday, July 10, 2005
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Imagine dropping a building nearly the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the Downtown riverfront. Or in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Or near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

It's enough to give any urban planner the sweats. But that's what the city could be confronted with as it prepares to make room for a casino capable of holding 3,000 slot machines, with the potential to add up to 2,000 more.

The sheer size of the proposed venue has stunned members of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force, the volunteer group put together by Mayor Tom Murphy to study the impact of the casino. By size alone, the casino could alter the city's landscape in much the same way as PNC Park, the convention center, and Heinz Field.

"I think we've got to be really prudent in discerning where this edifice is going to be. If we put it in the wrong place, I think it has the potential to be an eyesore and a mess," said Ronald Porter, task force co-chair. "Wherever it is, it's going to be imposing."

Task force members and public officials find themselves wrestling with the potential size of the casino, and attendant traffic and access issues, at the same time the number two Democrat in the state House is trying to bar municipalities once again from having control over the zoning of casinos.

State Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, a leading advocate of expanded gambling, introduced legislation last week that would prevent local zoning boards from deciding where casinos would be built. He was reacting to a recent state Supreme Court ruling that upheld the state's slot machine law but overturned one part that prevented local officials from exercising zoning control.

Veon would leave decisions on location up to the state Gaming Control Board, which will award the licenses for the standalone casino in Pittsburgh and the two in Philadelphia.

Just how big of a casino could be landing in the cities?

The Philadelphia Gaming Advisory Task Force, which is struggling with the same issues as its Pittsburgh counterpart, estimates that a casino with 3,000 slot machines and room to add 2,000 more, plus table games, will need about 100,000 square feet of floor space.

Add in so-called "back of the house" activities such as administration and security, plus restaurants and bars, and you're talking another 75,000 to 100,000 square feet.

To do all of that, plus account for parking in a 3,000 space garage and leave land for a 400-room hotel, a casino operator would need 9 to 12 acres, the task force estimates.

By comparison, a Wal-Mart Supercenter has 190,000 square feet of floor space and occupies 15 to 20 acres, including parking. At 9 to 12 acres, the casino complex would take up almost half of PNC Park and one third of Point State Park. It would occupy at least twice the space of the new Del Monte headquarters on the North Shore.

"These things are enormous and the general community really needs to understand just how big these are going to be. The community at large needs to have a chance to voice their concerns about the placement of these casinos," Porter said.

Equally important to the task force, to Murphy and others is how such a huge structure will fit into the half dozen or so potential sites in play for the casino, what the traffic impact will be and just what the gambling venue will look like in terms of design.

Outgoing City Council President Gene Ricciardi, for one, doesn't want the casino on the riverfront, potentially eliminating four of the seven possible sites, including Station Square, the North Shore and the Strip District, were he to get his way.

Ricciardi said the city and Allegheny County made a "big mistake" in building the county jail on First Avenue so close to the Monongahela River. He fears that putting a casino on the river could be "another Allegheny County Jail fiasco."

"I'm not going to give away our amenities in order to make a fast buck," he said.

Assuming 9 to 12 acres are needed, all but two of the known potential sites for a casino seem to have the space, at least in terms of raw acreage, to accommodate a venue with potentially 5,000 machines and parking, based on city Planning Department estimates.

The Penguins' Mellon Arena and the parking above it occupy about 32 acres. Station Square, where owner Forest City Enterprises and Harrah's Entertainment want to build, runs 48 acres, counting existing buildings and surface parking lots. Another potential site, Buncher Co. property in the Strip District near the convention center, stretches 29 acres.

A North Shore property near the West End Bridge owned by Gateway Clipper Fleet owner John Connelly is listed at almost 14 acres. Connelly, owner of a St. Louis riverboat casino, is said to be interested in a Pittsburgh casino, though his attorney has repeatedly denied that.

Beaver County developer Charles Betters has plenty of space for a casino on his 635-acre proposed Pittsburgh Palisades Park development in Hays, but he is still facing environmental challenges.

Two other sites don't have 9 to 12 acres, but the potential operator at each said he would have more than enough room to accommodate a casino with at least 3,000 machines.

On the North Shore, parking czar Merrill Stabile hopes to build on a 4-acre site near PNC Park bounded by Mazeroski Way and General Robinson and Federal streets.

Stabile said 4 acres is large enough to hold 160,000 square feet of floor space. He said the building he is planning would be more than one level. The site, he said, has the built-in advantage of having parking already available between the stadiums.

There also would be parking in the casino building, he said.

"The point is that the site is large enough to accommodate the building," he said. "Every site is going to have its own unique adaptability. It's certainly easy to come up with these rules of thumb. When it comes down to the actual design, there may be some efficiencies that haven't been accounted for."

Stabile, however, is facing other obstacles, chief among them opposition to the location by the Steelers, Pirates and officials at Equitable Resources, which just built a headquarters on the North Shore.

East of PNC Park, MTR Gaming, owner of Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va., is looking at Buncher Co. property on the Allegheny River estimated at 7 acres by the city Planning Department.

Without confirming any specific site under consideration, John Brabender, MTR spokesman, said all locations being studied by the firm would "more than comfortably fit" a casino. In some cases, he said, MTR was still in the process of acquiring property to meet casino needs.

MTR Chief Executive Officer Edson "Ted" Arneault believes 13 acres should be enough to hold a casino with up to 5,000 machines and "sufficient" parking for patrons. More land probably would be needed if a hotel were part of the plans.

Part of the problem in determining exact estimates is that casino size can vary depending on a number of variables. The new Greektown Casino in Detroit, for example, with 100,000 square feet of gambling space, would sit on 7.5 acres, including a 40-story hotel tower.

Among variables, surface parking eats up far more space than multilevel garages. The amount of floor space needed can vary also. One factor, of course, is the number of machines available. But another is how far apart the machines are, with casinos these days preferring more room, not less.

Operators also tend to prefer to have all of the gambling space on the same floor, but they can cut the total square footage required by putting "back of the room" activities, restaurants, lounges, other amenities, and even hotel space and parking, on multiple levels.

Murphy has said some of his biggest concerns about the casino involve design and traffic. He pointed out that PNC Park and the convention center had received praise for their design and that the city had pushed for high-quality design in those projects and others.

He feared that a casino, without proper zoning, could jeopardize that.

Despite the potential size of the casinos, design-related issues tend not to be a problem, said Paul Girvan, managing director of The Innovation Group, a New Orleans-based gambling consultant which has been working with the Philadelphia task force.

Girvan said Harrah's, for example, exerted "some effort" to make its New Orleans casino between the French Quarter and convention center fit the environment.

"I don't think that's a huge problem for operators. Their focus is to make it fit in and to be part of the urban landscape as much as possible," he said. "I think the exterior is open to influence and debate."

Likewise, David Strow, a spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment Inc., said Forest City Enterprises wants a casino design "that fits in well with the existing Station Square facility."

"Obviously, we want to be a good neighbor. We want to make sure we design it so we can fit into the community. But it also is a process we have done numerous times before. We're pretty experienced at it. We're pretty confident that we can design a project that will fit in well," he said.

Arneault said MTR's goal was to plan a casino that would "fit in with the overall product Downtown Pittsburgh would offer."

As far as design, "We want to make [it] as attractive and as inviting as possible, but not overly intrusive to the area," Brabender said.

To ease potential traffic congestion, Arneault said, he is considering shuttles that would stop at hotels, businesses, restaurants and other places. That not only would help to ease access and parking issues but also could get casino patrons to visit local shops and restaurants.

Brabender said there also could be potential transportation tie-ins to the convention center, whether over land or by water.

There's no doubt that traffic could be an issue with casinos, based on what the Philadelphia task force has learned.

It estimated that its two casinos would generate 10 million to 12 million visitors a year, the bulk of them coming by car. During peak casino times, that could add 2,000 more cars an hour to the roads surrounding the facilities.

Arneault predicted that potential congestion, access, and parking could become issues at each of the sites under consideration for the Pittsburgh casino, one of the reasons he is considering shuttles. He said casinos could help to spread out traffic and patronage, depending on the promotions they offer and at what times.

Some believe that issues such as design, traffic and access are compelling reasons that local officials need to have some say over the placement and zoning of casinos.

Porter, of the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force, said local people and officials are far more equipped to discern potential impacts than those who don't live in the area.

"The bottom line for me is that local interests will do a better job looking out for local community concerns," he said. "The presumption that Harrisburg or other controlling forces can do a better job in the interest of expediency is one I don't accept."

While the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force has no control over zoning, which is the province of other city agencies and City Council, Murphy has said its suggestions regarding design, traffic and other issues could be incorporated into zoning standards.

The city has been moving quickly to develop zoning regulations and districts for casinos in light of the June 22 state Supreme Court ruling that overturned the ban on local zoning.

It hopes to have zoning regulations passed by October or November, but that could be all for naught if Veon is able to persuade the Legislature to reinstitute the ban in a way that would withstand Supreme Court scrutiny.

Veon said that while he understands the types of issues and concerns facing the city and other municipalities over slots casinos, he believes this is "one of the rare times that the state should override local zoning."

He pointed to two reasons, one being that the state wants to get the casinos and so-called racinos, a combination horse track and slots parlor, up and running as soon as possible to generate revenue for the state and tax relief.

In addition, he said, a provision in Act 71, the slots gambling law, requires all licenses to be issued at the same time, not in a piecemeal fashion. A local zoning battle, he argued, could tie up all licenses, not just one.

But Ricciardi said he was "very disappointed" with Veon's move to yank control away from municipalities. He said issues such as traffic, access, noise, lighting and parking rightfully should be regulated by the municipalities that will be most affected by them.
(Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262.)

Mark Rauterkus said...

How about a document, 101 reasons why the casino should move into the convention center.

#1. The on-going operation of the convention center is a major drain on the public budgets.

#2. The costs to build the convention center can be paid back with its sale.

#3. No other entity is going to buy the convention center.

#4. Pittsburgh isn't going to bid upon the 2014 Olympics -- so we don't really need the ski jump anyway.

#5. Even with the new hotel we won't have enough beds to cover the demand for a major political convention.

#6. The convention center is ready for move in and there won't be much if any construction delays.

#7. The neighbors won't mind as few live in town now as it is.

#8. If the convention center doesn't work in 20 years -- they'll be able to tear it down and the public officials can live guilt free as it will be coming down in that many years anyway.

#9. Casino and Convention both begin with "C" and could "co-locate."

#10. What ever happened to Plan "C" anyway?

Mark Rauterkus said...

More reasons:

# I'd rather have the casino move into the Convention Center than other areas such as my neighborhood, or Point State Park, or Station Square, or anywhere else.

# The Pgh Gaming Task Force could merge with the Stadium and Exibition Authority.

# The RAD taxes that flow to the Convention Center would be better spent elsewhere, say the libraries or other smaller arts and recreational needs are plentyful.

# Being really prudent means giving up what one already has -- such as a new, green, state-of-the art building.

# The convention industry is in the toilet and will be for a long-long time to come. Since 9-11 it has changed in radical ways. The recent London terror (at subway stops no less) is another reminder. People don't need to travel like they did.

# Teleconference and internet has taken away the convention need.

# US Airways might not be around anyway. Rather not turn the airport into the casino -- but that is an option too. Without the flights, we'd never be able to hold a big convention as we can't get the people to Pittsburgh on empty airline seats -- nor can we put them in enough empty hotel beds.

# Rather than being last on a trend -- our move with a casino in the convention center would be bold enough to get good national attention.

# The convention center is a GREEN BUILDING and certified -- now. We'd have the largest GREEN casino in the county, no doubt.

# There are not a lot of windows in the convention center. It is better to look at than look out from.

# The convention center is big enough to hold other events, like prize heavy-weight fights, (as is often the case in Las Vegas Casinos) and even night-club shows such as Neil Diamond concerts 10 times a week if they wanted that too.

Mark Rauterkus said...

# To get the deal done, allow for slots at the convention center -- and then the only place it can go -- other than HAYS -- is in the Convention Center.

# The time for this plan is right now. Don't delay until after the new casino is already built. Do this type of deal now so that the bidders see what they'll get and have to absorb that new building.

# If the convention industry sees a rebound in 2012 -- then we'd be able to build another convention center with the next governor. It gives the mucky-mucks and Regional Goodie-Two-Shoes something to harp about for the next two decades -- "we need another convention center."

The Team 88 convention center legacy could have a ground breaking in 2012 in Sewickley or even in a distressed area, such as Sto Rox.

Mark Rauterkus said...

# Operators also tend to prefer to have all of the gambling space on the same floor, -- and the Convention Center floor is huge. And, with upper floors, the option of looking in to watch the card sharks is a snap.

# parking exists.

# river front access anywhere else is out, so says outgoing councilman Gene R.

# Praise for DESIGN already came to the convention center. So, more design praise can come again with a re-use. The design worry is in the bag -- Tom Murphy.

# Fit -- make it from what is there.

# Pittsburghers love hand-me-downs. This will be like a daughter wearing her mom's, or big sister's, or special aunt's bridal gown.