Building up the house

Philadelphia is home to just under two million people in the city itself, with another 4.5m in the surrounding area, so it seems odd that the city did not have its own casino until 2010. Since its opening, SugarHouse has thrived and has expanded operations accordingly. We spoke to Ian Cope of Cope Linder Architects about the project and their involvement.

Casino International: SugarHouse Casino is a big development – what were you brought on board to do?

Ian Cope: We came on board just after the legislation to allow gaming in Pennsylvania had been enacted, but before the licenses and proposed sites had been selected; we actually tested many sites on behalf of Chicago developer, Neil Bluhm, and what would later become his gaming company, Rush Street Gaming, that now owns the property and operates the casino.

They had some local partners who were already familiar with us, and because of our experience in Philadelphia, and our prior experience in gaming (we have done casinos elsewhere: Atlantic City, Delaware, Florida) we came in to test sites prior to purchasing. It was very controversial in the state at the time with some people adamantly opposed to it, some indifferent perhaps, and some who were supportive because of the potential job creation and additional revenue to the state.

Once the Gaming Act was passed, there came the debacle of deciding where the state’s casinos should go, and in legislation it was decided that Philadelphia would ultimately have two casinos. At that time, these facilities were for slot machines only, not table games. That started a whole round of public gaming board hearings for almost two years before the actual applicants and their sites were selected. Local residents were invited to participate. Only one casino in Philadelphia has come to fruition so far, the other one has had multiple and ongoing legal challenges. So right now, SugarHouse is the only casino in Philadelphia.

CI: What is involved with ‘testing locations’?

IC: We understand how to lay out a casino so it comes down to, what site is most appropriate; you need a lot of acreage and you want to be able to plan for expansion. Then the applicant for license has to demonstrate they meet gaming control board rules and selection criteria; the hearings became almost a beauty contest with who could place the building where it would get the most customer traffic? The state taxes the casino at a very high rate so the state is a partner in many ways with the casino.

To make a long story short, we were hired to perform ‘master planning’ of different sites, and the site SugarHouse is now built on was the best – and the gaming board agreed. We would test fit a casino program that would allow for the first phase of the casino, subsequent expansions; we would test that for the building layout, for the parking, site access from nearby highways…

CI: You’re also assessing the impact on its environs?

IC: Also not to tread on the neighbourhood; where SugarHouse is located, just north of the central business district along the riverfront, is in a neighbourhood. Some people in that neighbourhood were vociferous in their opposition to the casino, but ultimately SugarHouse has proved to have far fewer, if any, negative impacts. General Manager Wendy Hamilton and her staff did an excellent job from the beginning supporting the city and adjacent neighbourhood with outreach, engagement, and employment.

CI: SugarHouse has had a significant expansion, in which you were also involved…

IC: The initial casino – which we were involved with – was much smaller and opened in 2010. It was supported entirely by surface parking. We significantly expanded the casino, which soft-opened Christmas 2015. Some of the inside F&B outlets have been opening over the past year.

CI: A 152,000 square-foot expansion within five years of opening – that’s good going, something is going right at SugarHouse. When you envisioned the project with Neil and his partner Greg Carlin, did they come to you with the idea of how they wanted it to look or is this mostly Cope Linder? How much input did the owner have into this striking structure?

IC: They didn’t come to us with a strong sense of what it should look like – that was influenced by the city, and what else is going on along the riverfront. A number of people felt the casino should not be on the riverside, though they have changed their tune now. It became important for us to provide some waterfront amenity that was separate from the casino. What we created was a riverfront promenade, and it’s the largest segment of riverfront promenade that is properly landscaped, lit and accessible to the public in the whole Delaware River waterfront. It happens to be on private property but it’s essentially public domain. It’s on the far side of the casino, and it allows people to bike, jog, fish, and it’s important in terms of the physical siting of the building. It means it’s not the same as a shopping centre or other commercial building.

The architecture style is intentionally contemporary but understated. It’s a big building; both the initial building and the expansion represent a large footprint and when you add to that the car park, which has space for about 1500 cars, it’s an extensive footprint. We didn’t want it to look phony or historical, it is a former industrial site; the character has a slightly contemporary industrial look. The city fathers and planning commission didn’t want a garish, Vegas-style casino there, they didn’t want a lot of neon or cowboys on big signs. We respected that and kept it understated. It’s a destination but it doesn’t need to pull you right off the highway.

CI: What are the facilities you incorporated in the casino? If there is parking for 2,500 cars (1500 multi-storey, 1000 surface parking) there is presumably quite a lot to do inside.

IC: The first phase of the casino had one restaurant, and it had to fulfil many roles. There was one bar, Lucky Red, which was like a sports bar in the middle of the gaming floor; additionally, there was a grab and go, for pre-made sandwiches and coffee, simple things. Customers really wanted more food & beverage and live entertainment offerings; they asked for that. Also, just before phase one opened, state regulations changed to also allow table gaming. That changes the whole makeup of the casino; it’s no longer a slots- only facility. We immediately incorporated changes in the layout to incorporate those, with a gaming floor of about 52,000 feet.

Very important in the expansion was incorporating multiple choices into dining, with a large-scale venue that could provide live entertainment. There’s a 30,000 square-foot event center on the second floor, which can serve banqueting, boxing events, musical entertainment, comedy – there’s a lot of activity. Steak houses are ubiquitous at casinos, and Sugar House has a very well-run high-end steak house on the gaming floor, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Chop House, run by Gibsons Restaurant Group of Chicago. The famous Philadelphia cheese steak is available. Philadelphia institution Geno’s has an outlet here. There are other spaces that you can’t see on the casino floor that allow the operator to open more venues over time – an Italian restaurant, a cigar bar – as you know, it’s important to be able to refresh the facilities and change the venue to keep momentum.

CI: When you have a blank slate with a new build (or an extensive refurb or development), how much input do you have into how the space in a property is used?

IC: The owners have other gaming interests in other cities, so they have a good understanding of what they want; it’s up to us to make their ideas work physically. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of trial and error and back-and-forth. They visit other facilities to see what works and what doesn’t, as do we. We also work on other gaming projects so we have a good handle on what works and what doesn’t in terms of size, flow and customer demand.

CI: But surely what works in one city won’t necessarily work in another, especially in a country the size of the US?

IC: That’s quite true – expectations are different but you can get a good pulse. Plus the owners hear from their customers. SugarHouse has been referred to as a locals’ casino, and while it certainly welcomes a lot of visitors to Philadelphia, it is primarily there to serve customers from the Delaware Valley, either from Philadelphia, its suburban areas, or even New Jersey, which is just across the river. So the casino needs things that attract someone to come back more frequently than you might expect at a resort. They need to keep things fresh, active, easy to use; parking is very important. In Vegas, you might fly in, take a taxi and never move a vehicle, but here, most people will drive to the casino. There are real differences, but we understand what the customers want, and the management team here does listen to its customers.

For example, a huge segment of the market here is Asian, so one of the things we opened quite recently is Mian noodle bar. It’s been wildly successful. The space must be adaptable to changing market demands and things you may not have perceived.

CI: How involved do you stay in a project as time goes on?

IC: We stay actively involved in the properties and if we have done our job well, we get invited back to make any changes needed. Casinos spend a tremendous amount of money upgrading restaurants and have to refresh the guest rooms every few years; they are constantly embarking on those programs. To this day, 12 years after opening Borgata and six years after opening the Water Club, both in Atlantic City, we are still always working there. We opened a new nightclub at Borgata in 2016. We continue to work with SugarHouse; it’s a continuum, not a one- and-done.

CI: Can you distil what you do into a single, succinct sentence?

IC: We are something like a conductor in an orchestra. There is an enormous number of players involved in the design and decision-making of these projects; the owner has people involved, there’s a whole cadre of design consultants and technical experts that we bring in – there are lighting designers, acousticians, graphical signage people, parking consultants, structural engineers, mechanical engineers. We conduct that orchestra – we don’t take credit for writing the score, but we have to pull all of these pieces together to make it work. It’s a fun job and you have to be able to check your ego at the door a little bit.

CI: Could the future development path be altered by the other casino coming on-stream?

IC: Of course. You can grow the market a little bit but SugarHouse has had five or six years as the only casino in town; there are other casinos around Philadelphia, but not in the city proper. I think SugarHouse might be the largest casino within the city limits in the country, excepting Las Vegas and Atlantic City. It will be difficult to justify investing more capital if the market becomes even more saturated with another casino.