Compared to their brethren out West, most Philadelphia real estate developers are a stunted lot. They don’t get the chance to build entire towns from scratch in the desert outside of Phoenix or Las Vegas, or construct waterfront neighborhoods with sleek condos and New Urbanist pretensions in Portland or Seattle. What passes for big dreamers here busy themselves with converting a couple factory buildings into lofts, building a dozen townhouses in Grad Hospital or throwing up a mid-size apartment building on Rittenhouse Square that looks like a supersized row house. They are forced to nibble because someone already built pretty much the whole darn thing one hundred-plus years ago.
The lone recent exception is Bart Blatstein. His Piazza at Schmidt’s and adjacent Liberties Walk in Northern Liberties has both scale and complexity, whatever its other merits. By the time he’s done, Blatstein will have built 1,500 or so units of rental housing in the neighborhood, along with enough commercial space to house a dozen restaurants and bars, plus a Superfresh and an assortment of boutiques, galleries and office space. Plus, he’s doing some social engineering-lite, editing his commercial tenants to ensure they’re small, independent operations, and programming concerts and festivals in the Piazza’s open space.
However, Blatstein may soon have a neighbor who is nearly as ambitious. Michael Samschick says he has both buildings and tenants in place to create a sprawling entertainment complex called Canal Street North by this time next year on a desolate stretch of Canal Street bounded by Frankford, Laurel and I-95, just off Delaware Avenue. After that, Samschick plans on building housing adjacent to the complex in a bid to create a successful, mixed-use urban space. Yet his vision may be undermined by his choice of tenants, which tilt the project toward suburbanites who will drive in then drive back out again.
Phase One of his plans call for turning the former Ajax Metals building into a 3,000-seat Live Nation music venue, and the former Dry Ice Corp. buildings across the street into a country and western themed bar with a 1,200 person capacity. Also in the works are a Revolutions Bowling Alley & Lounge and a distillery and tasting room for Philadelphia Distilling. Later phases will add more residential units on either side of the complex, joining the 187 units already underway at Delaware and Brown Streets.
Samschick gave the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association zoning committee a look at his vision for the area Monday night, and it was a bravura performance. He sounded more like a community planner than a developer as he talked about eventually pedestrianizing Canal Street, as well as creating a community porch and green space. He promised traffic studies, bike parking, even discounted tickets for people arriving via public transit. And the list of goodies went on: L.E.D. signage on top of the building that will be set back from the facade and visible only from I-95, an incubator space for neighborhood retail and a small army of flag men to keep patrons east of Front Street after concerts. Even the old industrial buildings would be adaptively reused.
Most of all, though, there would be parking, just enough of it, and much of it on vacant land directly under I-95. The parking lots will be as attractive as possible, Samschick said, sectioned off with ornamental fencing. But they’ll still be parking lots, and therein lies the problem: the project is auto-centric at heart. By choosing big national chain operators as anchor tenants, Samschick has virtually assured that most of the patrons will be driving in from the suburbs, and that’s a dubious basis for creating a neighborhood.
To be sure, plenty of city folk will attend concerts at the Live Nation venue. But Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Revolutions Bowling Alley & Lounge are both slick national operators who usually set up in shop upper middle class suburbs like Mesa, Arizona, or near sports stadiums like the Palace at Auburn Hills, outside Detroit. They should continue to draw much of their business from this demographic despite the city location unless there turns out to be an unexpectedly large, untapped market for country music in Fishtown.
The presence of the Barbary, an Indie bar and dance club just across Frankford Avenue, puts a sharp edge on the urban/suburban divide. Spots like the Barbary are an underrated form of community, and a fragile one. While the Barbary crew will want nothing to do with the crowd that’s helped turn NoLibs into “BroLibs” on weekends, the reverse may not be true, and the energetic scene there could become a casualty of Samschick’s project.
Even if the area never becomes a successful neighborhood, though, it’s still a pretty good spot to park a family-friendly entertainment district. Every great city has a tourist-and-bridge and tunnel ghetto or two, and it’s usually located near a redeveloped waterfront. San Francisco has Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghiradelli Square; Boston has Faneuil Hall. Perhaps Canal Street North will turn into our homegrown version.
Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.