North Philly street fight: Will industry or gentrification win out on American Street?

A band played last Friday evening as guests mingled on the sidewalk over hors d'oeuvres, then took seats in the street at long tables laid with hand-printed placemats, below strings of festive lights.

It could've been mistaken for the city's latest pop-up beer garden - but this was American Street, the five-lane, industrial artery at the frontier of gentrification pushing west from Fishtown and north from Northern Liberties.

Normally, the street isn't much to look at: Vacant lots sprout high weeds and chain link. Sidewalks are narrow and crumble into oblivion. Train tracks lie disused. And cars speed without the guidance of lane markings before partaking in the local delicacy of parking in the median.

But now, American Street is at a crossroads.

Though the city has for two decades promoted it as an industrial corridor - investing millions in federal, state, and city dollars, and taking more than 100 properties by eminent domain - a new zoning plan and a $15 million project to tame and modernize the street could signal a change in course.

A Potential Plan for American Street: This rendering, presented at an August open house, represents one potential treatment for American Street, which includes a bike lane and parallel parking, as well as a landscaped median for stormwater-management. An updated plan incorporating community feedback will be released in November. Credit: Johnson, Mirmiran, & Thompson (JMT)

City officials say that as wide as American Street is, there's room for everyone. But businesses and residents aren't so sure.

"When you're doing the streetscape, what's it being designed for?" asked Lisa Maiello, who helped run the event, American Street Feast, which could be described as a guerrilla act of creative peacemaking. "Are we planning for a street that serves people that live and work there, that will feel safer and have amenities and attract life and commercial activity? Who's the street for?"

That question has echoed here for years.

Right now, it's home to food manufacturers and distributors, to auto repair shops, and to suppliers of granite and furniture.

But there's also a lot of vacant land. One stretch of street is an improvised parking lot. A median contains a community garden. In the vacuum, commercial users have crept in: a home-brew store, a charter school, and the galleries of the Crane Arts Building. Several residential projects are planned, including the 320-unit Soko Lofts.

Two zoning bills City Council passed Thursday signal an end to the purely industrial vision. The zoning, a mixed-use industrial-commercial designation, would allow uses like day cares, schools, stores, and restaurants as far north as Berks Street.

"I've spent the last eight years fighting with our Commerce Department around their insistence we keep this heavy industrial," said City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who introduced the bills. "Even though it never met its job-creation goals as an industrial sector, I thought we could do an industrial-commercial sector and try to create those jobs."

Meanwhile, streetscaping - fast-tracked to break ground in January 2018, in order to take advantage of a $5 million federal TIGER grant - is a study in urban land-use politics. Proposals for the stretch, between Girard and Indiana Avenues, include narrowing the street, adding protected or buffered bike lanes, and capturing rain in tree-lined green medians, or bioswales. It would also preserve wide turning zones for semi trucks.

The city presented plans to the community in July and will return with revisions in November.

Joan Waters, chief executive at COFCO, an office furniture supplier that has two large warehouses on American Street, didn't like what she saw.

"They're trying to take a street that is intended to be an industrial corridor and is zoned an industrial corridor, and turn it into something it's not."

She worries the rezoning will bring stores and homes farther north, stifling industrial users.

"Once that gate opens, they're not going to stop," she said. (Sánchez said she wouldn't allow residential development to spread into the industrial corridor: "Nobody complains 'til they hear a truck at 3 in the morning.")

The specter of a tree-lined median - to Waters, an obstacle to truck traffic, not an amenity - has already put the brakes on COFCO's expansion to another parcel on American Street.

City planner David Fecteau said the Commerce Department remains committed to an industrial future for much of the street, which is home to more than 1,100 jobs - and which represents decades of investment.

In the 1990s, the area was designated a federally funded Empowerment Zone and a Keystone Opportunity Zone, and the city undertook a $25 million land-assembly project. It condemned 109 properties, including 13 occupied homes, to make way for redevelopment. Much of that land still lies vacant.

Jessica Calter of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. said sustaining an industrial corridor remains a goal. But, "We recognize that there's a desire for residential and mixed-use development. We believe those things can coexist."

Still, it's becoming tight quarters for people like Ron Ramstad, chief executive of Emil's Gourmet, an organic deli meat company that employs 45 people and runs 24 hours a day.

He recently invested in a $2.5 million expansion, with a new American Street entrance. In July, he was dismayed to learn that plans include making his part of American a one-way street. That would send his trucks arriving from I-95 on a 1.5-mile loop through the neighborhood.

It's his latest frustration with changes around his facility, two blocks north of revitalized Girard Avenue: It's also now surrounded by residential construction.

Residents are frustrated, too. That's one reason for the American Street Feast - part celebration, part mission statement.

"The dinner is about demonstrating that we are a community of interest, that this is a neighborhood, and that American Street is a central corridor within a neighborhood," said Maiello, a resident and volunteer with South Kensington Community Partners.

To her, the event proved this is already a mixed-use corridor. It was on the 1500 block, which includes rowhouses, the new Original 13 Ciderworks, Bahdeebahdu design studio, solar equipment provider Solar States, and a planned residential/co-working place called Techadelphia.

A block south, a pop-up art park called the Meadows has risen on a vacant lot. Philadelphia Photo Arts Center installed it partly as a statement on the street, said its director, Sarah Stolfa.

"The revisioning of American Street needs to incorporate arts and culture and green space, as well as space for people to live and work," she said. "People have different ideas about what American Street's future should be, but it's been lying in wait for a long time."

Now, there's plenty of attention on American. Its streetscaping represents the largest-ever collaboration between the Streets and Water Department, which is approaching the 21-acre expanse as a vast stormwater-management project.

Darin Gatti, chief engineer at the Streets Department, accustomed to the constraints of this city's impossibly narrow streets, can't help but be optimistic.

"We want to take care of all the users of the right of way: pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, the disabled. We have room to do all of that," he said. "It might be the only opportunity we ever have to make all of our constituents happy."

smelamed@phillynews.com

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@samanthamelamed

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