Canal Street life cycles: creek to development spine

Tiny, meandering Canal Street feels like a place that time forgot. But that is about to change thanks to developer Michael Samschick’s recently announced big plans for Canal Street North, off Delaware Avenue near SugarHouse.

Samschick’s has extensive holdings along several blocks of Delaware Avenue and he engaged Interface Studio to develop plans for Canal Street North, which were presented to the Planning Commission on Tuesday, as PlanPhilly’s Kellie Patrick Gates reported. Samschick intends to convert the vacant Ajax Metal Company’s factory and an adjacent ice house into a blockbuster entertainment complex featuring an 18-lane bowling alley, a Live Nation concert venue the size of the Tower Theater, a “country and western” bar (Toby Keith redux perchance?), and a distillery (reportedly for Philadelphia Distilling). And that’s only the beginning.

So far the reaction to Samschick’s reuse plan for the Ajax property has been pretty enthusiastic. Fishtown neighbors voted in favor of the Canal Street North plan earlier this month, and although Planning Commissioners had questions about billboards and parking they were generally supportive of the proposal.

Aside from the huge amount of life this project would breathe into the huge, vacant Ajax building, I’m especially excited about what these plans mean for tiny Canal Street, one of my favorite streets in the city. Interface Studio has oriented the development to Canal Street, turning it into the thread that links several blocks of Samschick’s properties down toward his Pennthouses residential project at Brown Street. As a spine, Canal Street is especially crooked. I hope that Canal street’s curves and grit will create an interesting setting for Samschick’s anticipated mix of national chain, anchor tenants, making this place feel less like a strip mall and more like an appealing urban destination. Better still is the idea to eventually pedestrianize Canal Street.

Today Canal Street functions as a back alley for businesses and buildings fronting bigger streets – Delaware, Richmond, and Frankford. With its cobblestones and railroad-spurs-to-nowhere under foot, a walk down Canal Street is to wander through –  and above – pieces of the neighborhood’s past.

As its name and winding path suggests, Canal Street was once a waterway. Today’s Canal Street used to be the Cohocksink Creek, which emptied into the Delaware River near where Brown Street is now, forming the natural boundary between Kensington and Northern Liberties.

When Canal was the Cohocksink Creek, 1858-1860 Hexamer & Lochner Atlas |
(When Canal was the Cohocksink Creek, 1858-1860 Hexamer & Lochner Atlas |

As industry grew in Northern Liberties and Fishtown during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the creek was used as a canal. It also an open air sewer laden with industrial pollution and raw waste. Public health concerns, and the creek’s unfortunate tendency to flood, led the city to culvert, and then ultimately cap the Cohocksink in the late 1800s. Thus Canal Street was born.

Canal Street on 1895 Bromley Atlast |
(Canal Street on 1895 Bromley Atlast |

So even though the Cohocksink Creek remains hidden, its course is still clear in Canal Street’s curves and the irregularly shaped rear facades that still defer to its path.

Walk with me:


WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal