American Street north of Girard Avenue has traditionally been an industrial strip. The wide road with train tracks running down the middle serviced large factories lining the street for more than a century. As urban de-industrialization began in the middle of the 20th century, Philadelphia lost industrial businesses and workers. Federal, state, and local programs were enacted to try to lure industrial businesses back to areas like the American St. corridor. American St. was included in Enterprise Zone and Empowerment Zone programs in the 1980’s and 1990’s, which offered tax incentives and grants to industrial businesses in the area. The programs were far from a glaring success as businesses continued to close up shop and factories were demolished. At the beginning of the 21st century, American St. was in a distraught state with empty lots lining the street where bustling factories once operated. Few active factories remained.
The tide began to turn in the early 2000’s. To the south, Northern Liberties, an emerging neighborhood at the time, attracted new residents and businesses. The Crane Arts Center at American and Master St. transformed a plumbing (and later frozen food) warehouse into a artist studio and gallery space. We recently told you about a 120 unit mixed use project and other new developments near the Crane Arts Center. Another massive development is rising on American St. just south of Master St. that will include more than 300 residential units and ground floor commercial spaces. A tiny brewery, Punch Buggy Brewing, is starting up at American and Jefferson St. catty-corner to another new mixed-use building. Original 13 Ciderworks recently opened a cidery and restaurant at American and Oxford.
The most transformative project for American St. is currently underway: tearing out the train tracks, adding bicycle lanes, improving pedestrian infrastructure, creating stormwater management features, and greening the thoroughfare. This project was the result of a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. Bike lanes and safe pedestrian crossings conflict heavily with the industrial uses that were incentivized in the 80’s and 90’s. Because of complaints by some of the industrial businesses on American St., the project actually had to be scaled back to maintain the ability for trucks to make wide turns and for other industrial activities to continue.
It seems as if American St. is stuck in the middle of its transformation from a once teeming industrial zone to a mixed-use corridor with bikes and pedestrians gracing its pavement. Most of American St. from Girard past Lehigh Ave. is still zoned ICMX. Any projects seeking to build residential units on these plots require a zoning variance to proceed. Does the city want to see increased industrial uses or more residents and retail businesses on American St.? The message is unclear.
Because of the current zoning situation on American St., a project is rising at Cecil B. Moore. Ave. that will neither bring industrial jobs to the neighborhood nor add residents and retail. A 5-story storage facility is being built by-right on the 21,194 square foot ICMX zoned lot at 1645 N. American St. We do not think this is the right location for a storage facility. We expect a long, blank wall facing American St. from the concrete forms and cinderblock walls standing at the construction site. This is a total slap in the face to the pedestrians, bikers, and other residents that the TIGER grant is meant to cater to. A storage facility will also not create many jobs or much street activity.
Had this lot been zoned to allow residential use by-right, we may not be seeing a storage facility rise on American St. A zoning classification such as IRMX would have allowed both residential and industrial uses. Instead, we get neither.
City officials need to be clear and deliberate with their intentions for American St. Does the city want both industrial and residential mixed-use on American St.? Do they want to maintain a majority of industrial uses? Or, do they want to shift away from industrial zoning to a mixed-use only district? Right now, it is anyone’s guess.
Kyle is a Philadelphia real estate agent on the Agent PHL team at Compass, a homeowner, and a real estate investor in Philadelphia. Kyle uses his extensive Philadelphia real estate market knowledge to help his clients find homes, investment properties, and development opportunities.
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