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Synagogue, Developer At Odds Over Casino

May 16, 2013 By:
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Bart Blatstein

A proposed casino development along North Broad Street would adversely affect Congregation Rodeph Shalom and the surrounding community, the president of the congregation said at a Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board public hearing May 8.

Dena Herrin told the board, which held hearings at Lincoln Financial Field last week, that the community is enjoying a resurgence driven by an increase in home ownership and local businesses, including upscale eateries, that have opened in recent years.

The casino board intends to award a second license to Phil­adelphia by the end of the year, according to a spokesman, and is sifting through six proposals, several of which have prominent Jewish businessmen behind them. 

Herrin said developer Bart Blatstein’s proposal, known as The Provence, raises concerns about traffic, safety and security and would act as a deterrent to home ownership in the area.

“Should our community be the test case for the effects of a casino development in the heart of a downtown urban area housing so many schools, places of worship, residences and small businesses?” Herrin said, according to a copy of her remarks. “We think not.”

Blatstein, whose investments in Northern Liberties played a significant role in the revitalization of the neighborhood, aims to convert the former home of the Philadelphia Inquirer at 400 N. Broad St. into a $700 million entertainment complex. He has already invested in the North Broad neighborhood with the Avenue North apartments near the Temple University campus, and earlier this year, he announced plans for another apartment building in the area.

Addressing the changes in the North Broad area over the last few years, he said, “There has been scattered development but way too slow.”

“Rodeph Shalom stood alone for decades amidst blight, and now it’s changing,” Blatstein said in an interview. “This will help accelerate that change and take what was once a vibrant community and bring it back.”

For her part, Herrin said that Blatstein has been generous with his time in several meetings but has not addressed concerns over the casino’s impact on the neighborhood. She said Rodeph Shalom was not taking a moral position against gambling.

“We’ve said, ‘Can you help us figure out if there are solutions to the problems we’ve identified,’ and so far we haven’t seen them,” Herrin said in an interview. She said she addressed the board because she was concerned the way others had described the area around Rodeph Shalom as a “wasteland.”

“I invited the members of the casino board to come see our community,” Herrin said. “And I really hope they do.”

Paul Snitzer, chairman of the North Broad Community Coalition, told the gaming board at an April hearing that the concerns of area schools and faith-based institutions stem from the crime that has occurred near other area casinos.

The only existing casino in Philadelphia is SugarHouse Casino near the Delaware River. Others in the area include one in Bensalem and one in Chester.

“We are also concerned that the pattern we have seen at other local casinos, where criminals prey on victims not on-site, but immediately off-site, will occur in our neighborhoods,” said Snitzer,  also a member of Ro­deph Shalom, who provided a copy of his testimony. 

On the potential traffic issues caused by a casino, Snitzer said that the “weekday rush is already a difficult and stressful task,” and that “the insertion of thousands of visitors during that rush hour will break our historic streets.”

Blatstein said that two months ago, he offered to pay for the coalition to hire a traffic consultant to work with one he had hired, but he has not received a response. He emphasized the distance between the entrance to the proposed casino, on the 1500 block of Callowhill Street, and Rodeph Shalom, and said the casino “is not even visible,” from the synagogue. 

Asked how he viewed his chances of receiving the casino license following last week’s hearings, Blatstein said, “I feel good. It’s the logical choice given the location, the scope of the project and the team,” behind it. 

The other Jewish businessmen vying for the casino license include Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, whose $900 million proposed complex would be located in Fishtown along the Delaware River, and Ken Goldenberg of MarketEast Associates, proposing a $500 million complex at Market and Eighth Streets. The other three proposals aim for locations near the sports complex in South Philadelphia.

Congregation Mikveh Israel, located about four blocks from Goldenberg’s proposed site, has not taken a position on the ca­sino but is “always concerned about the quality of life” around the synagogue, said Rabbi Albert Gabbai. 

But he added, “From a spiritual aspect, we don’t see any influence from a casino because most of our members do not frequent such places.”

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