The city Planning Commission met with Rush Street Gaming officials prior to Wednesday’s meeting to discuss the design of the Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor.
Four commissioners met with the casino’s development team Monday and another four met with the team Tuesday, according to City Planner Christine Primiano.
By doing so, they avoided a five-member quorum. With a five-member quorum, the meeting must be announced to the public and conducted in public.
During the public meeting Wednesday, the commissioners did not comment on the casino’s design “because we met before the meeting,” Chairwoman Sharran Coppola said during the meeting in Room 110 at City Hall.
Coppola could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The Planning Commission is made up of nine members appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. Commission members include Coppola, Matt Cuevas, Brad Lewis, Jason Bogdanowicz-Wilson, Mary Moore Wallinger, Chris Rush, Tom Carey, Julia Stone and Sara Bonacquist.
Cuevas has recused himself from voting on the site plan of buildings on the Alco site due to his involvement with the project as an employee of Albany engineering firm CHA, formerly Clough Harbour & Associates.
Primiano said discussions at the two meetings before the public meeting were centered on the change of the operator’s design of the casino from modern to traditional.
“The overall consensus was that everyone was expecting something similar to the first design — a more contemporary structure — and didn’t know it would change so drastically to the structure they submitted,” she said.
Like a majority of local residents, Primiano said the commissioners are not in favor of the new design.
“They felt it didn’t generate any excitement,” she said. “They were trying to design a building they felt fit into the context of our environment, but we were looking for something different.”
Rush Street Gaming of Chicago is partnering with Rotterdam developer Galesi Group on a $330 million casino at the old Alco site off Erie Boulevard, renamed Mohawk Harbor.
The casino is in addition to Galesi’s plan to revitalize the 60-acre brownfield with housing, hotels, office and retail buildings and a 50-boat-slip harbor. The total price tag of the development is about $480 million.
Primiano labeled the meetings “subcommittee meetings,” but they were not announced to the public or the news media.
“Maybe if we feel there needs to be more discussion, we will do the subcommittees again,” she said. “It’s hard to have that discussion during one meeting.”
The Planning Commission plans to vote on the site plan for the casino during its next meeting Wednesday, July 15, at 6:30 p.m. in Room 110 at City Hall.
The meeting Wednesday was meant for Rush Street officials to get feedback from the commission and the public about the design to take back to the drawing board and present a tweaked version to the commission at the July meeting.
Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said although the Planning Commission didn’t violate the Open Meetings Law because they did not meet as a quorum, it demonstrates a lack of transparency.
“If there is an attempt to evade the Open Meetings Law by ensuring that a series of gatherings will include less than a quorum, it’s possible that a court could find that the entity failed to comply with the law,” he said.
He added that the actions of the Planning Commission left the public in the dark about a major development.
“It may be legal, but it does not represent the best possible way to be accountable to the public,” he said. “Clearly this practice demonstrates a lack of transparency and accountability.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy said the developers meet with city staff and members of the commission on an ongoing basis, “so it is more evolutionary.”
“This is a major project, and it has been covered fairly extensively in the media," he said. ”They complied with the law, but the law may not be quite as open and structured in a way that you would be 100 percent. This is just part of the process.”
Primiano said commissioners met with Galesi Group officials before approving the developer’s other buildings on the site, including a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, 191-unit apartment building and 50-unit condominium building.
“We have done it a lot for the Alco project,” she said. “We have done it in the past for other large developments, but it’s not a regular thing we do for smaller projects. We have met before for several buildings on the Mohawk Harbor site.”
The commission also approved the site plan for Galesi’s 24-unit townhouse building and 60,000-square-foot office and retail building on the site.
During the meeting Wednesday, three of the commissioners initially voted against the project, but changed their minds after Copolla argued their reasoning for disapproval was not within the commission’s purview.
Commissioner Lewis said he did not like the building’s dark brick exterior and that it “looks like an Alco knockoff.” He added, “I simply don’t want to see this.”
Lewis could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Commissioner Rush said he disliked the stairs leading up to each unit of the townhouse building. Commissioner Stone also disliked the design and spoke out against it.
If the commissioners stuck with their original vote of 4-3, the site plan for the townhouse building would have been shot down because approval requires five votes, a majority of the commission’s total membership.