Designing a Better Casino

Now that legislation permitting gambling casinos is a done deal for Massachusetts, Anne-Marie Lubenau (LF 2012) shares cautions and lessons for a process that can ensure sustainability, design harmony and community-friendly results.

Like it or not, gambling casinos are cropping up in American cities outside of traditional gambling centers such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas. In November 2011 Massachusetts joined a growing list of states that have legalized commercial gaming facilities, with Governor Deval Patrick signing legislation that allows for the development of up to three destination resort casinos.

The potential impact on communities is considerable. These large-scale facilities have a significant social and physical impact beyond the heralded jobs and tax revenue they bring. The rush to develop and open these facilities to bring in anticipated tax revenue can undermine years of careful planning and investment in urban centers. In places like Pittsburgh, where gaming was not permitted before Pennsylvania gaming legislation was enacted, local communities require resources to prepare for the challenges associated with the introduction of casinos.  

Fortunately for Massachusetts, the enabling legislation includes guidelines that address community impact, including design. It requires the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to issue regulations that include criteria such as “an evaluation of architectural design and concept excellence; integration of the establishment into its surroundings.”

AIA Massachusetts seized this opportunity to initiate a dialogue about design with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. On December 12, 2012 the Boston Society of Architects and Massachusetts Gaming Commission co-hosted a forum on design considerations for casino facilities, with the goal of promoting sustainability and design excellence in harmony with local communities. Titled “Promoting Sustainability and Strengthening Communities: Design Excellence for Massachusetts Casinos,” the forum was organized in collaboration with the American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts.

I was invited to address the Strengthening Communities portion of the agenda and discussed my experience working with the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force, the challenges the city faced during the development of the Pittsburgh Casino and the lessons learned from the entire process.

Unlike in Massachusetts, enabling legislation in Pennsylvania did not address design. The City of Pittsburgh, led by then-Mayor Tom Murphy, assembled Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force – a volunteer group that secured funding (including a grant from the Heinz Endowments) and experts to gather information to educate the administration and community and provide insights to the casino's developers. 

The Task Force established a design committee to develop design guidelines, including criteria for siting, building design and performance, transportation and parking, landscaping and screening, public art and signage, as well as regulatory avenues to ensure compliance and monitoring. These recommendations informed the Department of City Planning’s zoning code amendment to allow gaming facilities, along with building design requirements.

However, despite these efforts, other forces intervened – including pressure to reduce costs and get the casino up and running – that influenced the casino's design and development. To expedite construction after approval of the master plan, the city – under Mayor Luke Ravenstahl – modified its standard review procedures to allow review and approval of individual building components, such as foundations and steel, as the project progressed. That sped up the casino's development, allowing ground to be broken within a year of the planning commission's approval.

With construction underway, the entire project was presented again for planning commission review. Pressure to reduce construction costs resulted in design changes that meant reducing the size of the building and exposing an adjacent parking structure. The parking garage now towered over and dominated the facility. The design community was shocked. Despite significant advocacy efforts, including a legal challenge to the approvals process, the revised design was accepted and construction proceeded.

The Pittsburgh casino opened in 2009. Unlike most dark, windowless gaming facilities, the casino offers views from its restaurants to an adjacent riverside park and over the water to downtown Pittsburgh. Outside, a right-of-way ensures public use of the privately owned park and trail, but the large concrete parking garage still towers over the riverfront casino.

What lessons from Pittsburgh’s experience did I share at the Massachusetts forum? For one thing, that it's important to establish your community’s priorities. Clearly define expectations, including regulations and review procedures, for casino developers. Monitor and enforce the process. Educate and engage your community and its leaders so they understand the issues and potential pitfalls of casino design and development. And don’t underestimate the influence of politics and leaders in the process.

Given the dialogue at the December forum, I believe it’s possible for Massachusetts learn from what happened in Pittsburgh and generate a better outcome for local communities. AIA and Gaming Commission members have expressed the desire to raise the bar for casino development and design in Massachusetts. It’s a promising start, because without proper planning and consideration for design we may be gambling with the future of affected communities.

Fellowship Year: 2012
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One Response to Designing a Better Casino

  1. I wonder when the regulations would change ultimately to allow all kind of gambling (both online and offline) for US residents…
    Good luck to your project!

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