For years, when you talked about gaming regions of the country at the forefront of casino design, the Northeast was rarely mentioned. There’s good reason for this-outside of Atlantic City and, more recently, Connecticut, the Northeast had few actual casino projects to examine and discuss.
The situation has changed dramatically over the last decade however, and the Northeastern portion of the United States is now awash with gaming facilities of all shapes and sizes. In addition to Connecticut, tribal gaming has taken root in New York and North Carolina. Commercial and racetrack casinos have sprouted in Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia. Casino-enabling legislation appears likely to pass in Massachusetts as well, which would add three large-scale casino resorts and a track-based slot parlor to the Northeast gaming property mix.
The rapid spread of gaming has led to increased competition for casino patrons and their disposable income in a number of Eastern markets, especially those in and around New York City and its population of more than eight million. In response, New York City-area gaming properties new and old, large and small, are looking hard at renovation and expansion to provide market distinction and to capture and keep customers.
“There is no question that the gaming industry in general is becoming more competitive,” said Jay Valgora, principal and founder of STUDIO V Architects, a Manhattan-based firm that specializes in hospitality and entertainment project design. “I think that if you want to succeed, you need to create a more compelling guest experience. And design is a huge point of differentiation in that.”
STUDIO V’s latest casino project proves Valgora’s point. Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, Yonkers, N.Y., is by most measures the most successful single racetrack casino in the U.S., generating $582.23 million in revenue for 2010, according to statistics compiled by The Innovation Group. Despite this success and being open for only five years, executives at Empire City Casino decided it was time for the property to undergo an expansion and redesign, according to Timothy Rooney Jr., general counsel for the racino.
“We opened the property in late 2006 and a couple of things have changed since then,” Rooney Jr. said. “We’re now allowed to offer electronic table games and we need more space to put them on the floor. We already have one of the tightest floor spaces in terms of machines per square foot. We are trying to loosen up the floor a bit and create better aisles to allow for better circulation when we are busy; which is almost every night. So this expansion will allow us to do that.”
In addition to this rational reason for expansion and redesign, there is also an emotional purpose. “Our facility does not have a dramatic entry at this point,” Rooney Jr. added. “When people actually enter our casino they are wowed, they have no idea how much money we’ve spent on the interior and how beautiful it is based out what it currently looks like on the outside. We now want people to be wowed before they enter. This expansion gives us the opportunity to enhance our customer’s sense of arrival at the property when they get here.”
Plans call for the company to spend $40 million on the 66,000-square-foot expansion, which will provide 30,000 square feet of additional gaming space, 20,000 square feet of food and beverage facility space, 6,000 square feet for a new casino entrance, and 10,000 square feet of office and administrative related space, according to Empire City Casino literature.
The expansion will allow Empire City to reconfigure its current gaming layout, relocating 350 of its existing 5,310 slot machines while introducing 400 new electronic table gaming seats for its customers. This new space will significantly enhance the gaming and entertainment experience for patrons, and the new casino entrance will include a high-tech porte-cochère that will not only enhance the architecture of the structure but also provide necessary protections for guests during inclement weather.
Completion of the addition is expected in early 2012.
As for the expansion’s design, the architecture of the new casino at Yonkers Raceway is a drastic departure from ordinary casino layouts. A dramatic curved façade features over 45 feet of frameless low-iron glass in a 300-foot arc that creates a backdrop to the entry canopy and a window onto the interior of the casino. The sculptural entrance structure is inspired by the unique landscape of “the hilltop track” at Yonkers Raceway. A massive steel lattice shell structure grows out of the hillside to create a sculptural entrance canopy that forms an icon on the exterior, and a dramatic backdrop to the excitement and activity of the casino interior. This will be covered in an innovative material, ETFE foil, and will be the largest structure of its kind in North America.
“At Yonkers Raceway, we set out to completely re-invent the modern casino,” Valgora said. “The typical casino is a themed box cut off from its environment. In our design, a four-story arc of frameless glass expresses the energy of the casino on the outside, and brings the drama of the unique landscape and architecture into the gaming hall.”
Valgora plans to integrate contemporary architecture throughout the Empire City Casino expansion. “I think they way of the future is to create beautiful, compelling spaces that make people feel excited to be there,” he said. “We are looking to create drama… something that is as dynamic and exciting as the gaming experience itself.”
SANDS OF CHANGEEmpire City Casino is not the only New York-area property looking to set itself apart from the competition with out-of-the-ordinary design. Fresh off the continued success of its integrated resorts in Macau and Singapore, Sands took the next step in creating a similar development at its Bethlehem, Pa., property with the grand opening of a luxury hotel last June. The casino portion of Sands Bethlehem, which hosts 3,000 slot machines and 123 table games, had opened in May 2009.
“When the casino opened two years ago, [Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO] Sheldon Adelson promised that if table games were eventually approved in Pennsylvania, we would build a hotel here,” said Robert DeSalvio, president of Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, at the grand opening. “We are now fulfilling that commitment to create a destination casino resort in Bethlehem.”
The $30 million Sands Hotel includes 302 rooms, including six presidential suites and 16 executive suites, with the latest in modern amenities such as wireless Internet, media hubs and high-definition flat-screen televisions. The facility also includes an indoor pool, a fitness room and 5,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.
Sands Bethlehem site plans call for the opening of a retail mall and a convention center large enough to handle trade shows and other functions by February 2012.
“In the end, Sands Bethlehem will be a smaller version of the larger integrated resorts we have developed in Las Vegas and Asia,” said Michael Leven, president and COO of Las Vegas Sands. “This resort will be nice and comfortable, family-oriented not fancy-it will fit the atmosphere of Lehigh Valley.”
OCEAN VIEWAnother large-scale resort that is emphasizing luxury during its build out is Revel, the formerly unfinished and shuttered Atlantic City resort that was given a second lease on life earlier this year when the New Jersey Economic Development Authority funneled $261 million into the project. This investment allowed Revel executives to secure $1.15 billion in additional financing to complete construction and open sometime in the spring of 2012.
At opening, Revel’s glass tower will offer 1,100 rooms (each with a view of the Atlantic Ocean), over 100 suites, 46 retail shops, 12 restaurants, 2 nightclubs, a 22,000 square foot spa and a 5,500 seat theater. The facility will also have 160,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. A 150,000-square-foot casino will be woven within these multiple layers of entertainment venues.
From a design perspective, Revel is not turning its back to the ocean, choosing instead a graceful glass façade that faces the waves and reflects them, literally and figuratively. Three pool areas and a private beach with cabanas just above the Boardwalk will provide a refined beach experience.
“Revel is of the place… it really does speak directly to its presence on the Jersey Shore, and hence it is more resort-oriented,” said Michael Prifti, a principal at BLT Architects, the architects of record for Revel. “It really is a resort that happens to have a casino in it. It is really oriented toward a new and modified strategy for Atlantic City I think.”
Encompassing 6.3 million square feet, the $2.4 billion glass structure on The Boardwalk will be more notable for its lifestyle experiences than its physical size, according to company literature. Revel Entertainment Group’s creative teams are crafting a collection of nightlife and daytime offerings, restaurants, retail theaters, experiential venues and programming that will appeal to guests’ passions from cuisine to entertainment, popular culture, fashion, wellness, fitness and other personal interests. The resort will serve as a playground for those who engage in life with gusto and aplomb, the property claims.
The resort will also appeal to those seeking a more spiritual retreat as well, according to Prifti. “From any arrival point, you will get a vista of the ocean before you enter the property,” he said. “That is a unique proposition… the way Revel is organized and laid out, you will always have this connection to your place on earth. Most casino resorts are windowless, other than the hotel rooms. Revel will not be like that at all.”
Prifti believes this combination of design and function will bring consumers back to Atlantic City gaming, especially as they tire from the limited experience available in satellite casino markets.
“I think the comparables to what we’re doing at Revel are found in Las Vegas,” Prifti said. “This is a different animal from what you’ll find in New York and Pennsylvania casinos. I believe Atlantic City will find that The Revel is its future direction.”