Places: Can a casino be a good neighbor?

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Somebody's going to get a Christmas present worth megamillions tomorrow, while two others will find only lumps of coal in their stockings. Who should the favored one be?

Strada LLC
The two-story Majestic Star casino would follow the riverfront along the North Shore. It features a three-story cylindrical glass atrium, a 1,000-seat riverfront amphitheater, four restaurants, a sports bar, beer garden, coffee shop and two nightclubs offering panoramic views of the skyline.
Click photo for larger image.

I've been reluctant to endorse any of the three competing plans for the Pittsburgh slots license because it seems that the increase in public revenues comes at too high a social cost in gambling addictions, the breakup of families, the loss of small businesses and more. But like it or not, gambling is coming, and now the task is to decide where it will do the least harm and the most good: at Station Square (Harrahs), in the Lower Hill District (Isle of Capri) or on the North Shore (Majestic Star).

There is no shortage of opinion on this, some of it even informed opinion. None of the plans is perfect, as those who have examined the issues and come to their conclusions make clear. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which meets tomorrow to make its decision, won't have the luxury of falling back on a consensus choice, because there isn't one.

Way back in March, the Post-Gazette endorsed the Isle of Capri plan because its $1 billion development package includes a new $290 million Penguins arena and $400 million in office, retail and residential growth in the Lower Hill.

The late Mayor O'Connor didn't personally support any casino, but in May his city planning director, Patrick Ford, released a 135-page report that concluded that Harrah's Entertainment and Forest City Enterprises had a better track record, location, site and building plan than its competitors, and probably a stronger socioeconomic impact. The drawback with the Station Square site, Ford found, was its relative inaccessibility compared to the Isle of Capri plan.

In October, the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force said it was favoring the Isle of Capri plan, partly because it found that casinos are more successful in attracting gamblers (and thus maintaining long-term viability) when they're part of larger entertainment complexes like the Penguins' arena. The task force also likes Isle of Capri's central location, serviced by numerous bus routes, and its neighborhood development plan.

The task force did not examine the Harrahs/Forest City plan because of a conflict between it and Forest City over which Harrahs location the task force should visit. Forest City then refused to cooperate, so the task force never interviewed Harrahs representatives or analyzed the Station Square plan. The city is the loser in this battle of wills, because the Forest City plan was worth examining (and some think it has the inside track politically). The casino would be built in an existing entertainment and tourism district, a big plus, and Forest City would expand Station Square with its own neighborhood development plan, matching Isle of Capri's $1 billion total investment.

The third contender, Majestic Star, was endorsed a week ago in a Post-Gazette op-ed piece by Pittsburgh-based architects and urban designers Dan Rothschild and Ken Doyno. They like its positive contribution to the riverfront, its isolation from nearby residential neighborhoods, its enhancement of the development potential of the North Shore and its accessibility to the riverfront park and to major highways. It also was the choice of Fred Reginalla, retired director of the city engineering and construction department, when asked by the Post-Gazette's Joe Grata to analyze the three plans on the basis of traffic and access alone.

Hooking up with the Penguins was a smart move for Isle of Capri, because for many it made their plan seem like the only rational and fiscally responsible choice. But the decision shouldn't be made on the basis of what's good for hockey; the bottom line must be what's good for Pittsburgh and for the neighborhood on the casino's doorstep. If the casino is a good fit in its neighborhood, it will by extension be a better fit for Pittsburgh.

Not only is the Hill not the best place to put the casino, it's the worst place. The negative social impact on a residential and university neighborhood, the visual and psychological impact of massive buildings in a historic neighborhood and more traffic on the already congested edge of Downtown all argue against putting the casino on the Hill. Many neighborhood ministers and other leaders have been outspoken in their opposition, citing the casino's easy access for low-income residents.

While either Station Square or the North Shore is a better option, Forest City's thumb-your-nose attitude toward the task force doesn't bode well for future collaboration with the city, and the Station Square site's limited access is a problem that will be hard to resolve.

I favor the North Shore casino for the reasons Rothschild, Doyno and Reginella expressed and because its architect, Downtown-based Strada, is a capable and conscientious firm that has produced a design that looks as if it will be an asset to the riverfront: a two-story steel, glass and stone building that follows the shape of the river. The developer, PITG Gaming, has sweetened the deal considerably by offering a $350 million development package for the Hill.

The main concern here -- and it's a big one -- is its location next to Carnegie Science Center, especially on Saturdays, one of the busiest days for both attractions. But the two will have their own synergy, since grandma can be dropped off at the casino while mom and dad take the kids to the science center. In Kansas City, Mo., 80 percent of slots players are women and many are seniors, the task force found.

The truth is, the full impact of a casino in the Hill District or anywhere else is unknown. As the task force report noted, "No direct model currently exists for the single urban casino to be built in Pittsburgh," so it studied casinos in a historic mining town in Colorado, where fewer than 120 people live, and riverboat casinos in Kansas City, Mo.

The only thing we know for sure is that we're headed into uncharted territory.


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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