The race to claim American Street, Philly’s next revitalized corridor

Construction means the road is nearly impossible to drive right now.

Construction on American Street near Girard

Construction on American Street near Girard

Courtesy American Street Improvement Project
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Updated 10:08 a.m.

Navigating American Street right now is nearly impossible.

If you’re driving, you can barely make it a block before you’re detoured off. Parts of the pavement are ripped up from the median all the way out to the sidewalks, especially along the stretch from Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Girard.

The chaos is a symptom of a massive redevelopment project that will drastically change the look of the road — and the neighborhood around it.

Construction has begun on the American Street Improvement Project, which is funded mainly with federal money, plus some from the Streets and Water departments. And while the city is spearheading the multiyear effort to revitalize the corridor from Northern Liberties to Fairhill, crews been joined by many independent developers, both commercial and residential, who are making moves to claim space on the street while they still can.

Once a thoroughfare for industry and factory work, the strip has never been particularly welcoming to pedestrians, cyclists or small businesses. That’s about to change.

American Street, minus the trolley tracks

American Street, minus the trolley tracks

Courtesy American Street Improvement Project

‘Philly’s next neighborhood’

American Street’s industrial past is not ancient history.

As recently as 2013, factories like Chaes Food were said to be doing bustling business near Susquehanna Avenue. South of that, however, many of the factories that were once staples of the street had gone quiet, including American Knitting Mills, F.M. Paist Co. Candy and an Aramark distributor. One block over on Second Street, Ontario Mills had been demolished.

As time passed, these former factories turned into abandoned warehouses — or worse, vacant lots.

“Preserve its industrial roots, or allow modern development?” reads a Hidden City story on the street from 2013. “Now, with development pressures creeping up north from Girard Avenue, the exact future of American Street is uncertain.”

That exact same year, entrepreneur Rob Cassell bought a former stable near the corner of American and Jefferson, right behind the Crane Arts Building, and launched New Liberty Distillery there. In the five years since, he said, neighborhood change has been intense.

On American Street, Rob Cassell's distilling takes place in a still he designed himself.

On American Street, Rob Cassell's distilling takes place in a still he designed himself.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“It was very much liking the space and believing the wave is coming,” Cassell said. And come it did.

“We went from where it was super quiet, there was nobody there,” he said, “to entire blocks changing and being redeveloped.”

Development pressure has officially manifested. OCF Realty and Elfant Wissahickon Realtors have both recently noted “development opportunities” on American Street, and even dubbed the surrounding area “Philadelphia’s next neighborhood.”

“There’s a lot of investment there, a lot of interest,” said Ori Feibush, founder of OCF Realty. “It’s an area that continues to appreciate and have greater interest from commercial developers, home buyers and tenants.”

NextFab, a network of artisan manufacturing spaces, just opened up shop in a 60,000-square-foot building on American Street and Berks. It’s common, per NextFab CEO Evan Malone, for artist services to move into the old warehouses in the neighborhood.

“And there’s also a trend of the residential conversion of old industrial buildings as well,” Malone said. “Those two things are running into each other a little bit.”

Businesses have come aboard, signing leases for the new spaces. And the city seems to get it. As folks claim hot property along the corridor, officials are priming the street to host them.

Making the street actually work

After the city secured the federal funds this past April, the Streets Dept. dug in for some longterm construction — it’s not slated to be complete until December 2020.

The official project focuses on American Street from Girard to Indiana Avenue, revamping the corridor to include:

  • Wider sidewalks, to reduce the length of pedestrian crosswalks and enhance safety
  • Just one lane of traffic in each direction (there used to be at least two in many places)
  • Designated bike lanes
  • Designated parking lanes
  • Green stormwater infrastructure on the road’s median (taking the place of old rail tracks)
  • Highway-grade lighting
  • New pavement striping and signage

For local business owners, the construction has been tough to weather. Cassell, of New Liberty, said the roadwork is constant, and often cordons off entire blocks at a time.

“That has caused a logistical nightmare for us,” he said. “Sometimes, getting people to your place with a massive construction zone everywhere is impossible.”

It’ll be years before the city’s construction ends in Cassell’s neck of the woods. But as in return for big neighborhood improvements, he’s willing to wait it out.

“I look at that corridor, and for the longest time it was this awkward endpoint,” Cassell said. “As a Philadelphian, it’s fun to watch the rebirth of the city.”

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