Bounded by Delaware Avenue, Poplar and North Penn Streets
Upon first inspection of this lot, it seems pretty innocent. A large triangle of land created by the fork between Delaware Avenue and North Penn Street with the first segment of Poplar Street running along the back. It looks like the front lawn of the Yards Brewery, a green space sporting some barely legal billboards. Nonetheless, you should know that this is a perfectly-buildable, privately-owned patch of empty lot.
This lot was not even land until the Cohonsink Creek, which ran immediately to the south, was controlled. Before that, this area was part of the creek's wide inlet that was basically a huge marshy swamp that would flood even wider during summer storms. When the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777-1778, they dammed the creek so that this inlet would grow even larger, creating a natural barrier between their base at Point Pleasant (now the approximate location of Sugar House), and the city.
Once the creek was made into a canal (which was really just a disgusting open-air sewer), this lot lived as the eastern edge of a rectangular lot that held a series of lumber yards. Back then, Delaware Avenue did not reach this far north. Though more controlled, the former creek was the outlet for sewage and stormwater for a large part of North Philadelphia. The part of the canal in this location became a choke point of dead animals, household garbage, and human shit. The constant floods must have been a lot of fun for this lot in those days.
"Lumber Yard" in 1862, when the canal was still pretty new. Source: Free Library of Philadelphia via philageohistory.org
Eventually, the canal was made into the sewer it exists as today. That didn't stop it from flooding constantly, sometimes making shit-infused sewer water pop out of the street above like a geyser. Until the 1920s, the sewer drained sewage straight out into the river just to the east of this lot.
The lot took on its current triangular shape in about 1922, when the newly-widened Delaware Avenue was extended into this area, thereby slicing through all the properties in its way. Warehouse magnate Harry Perloff acquired the triangle about that time and built a large warehouse that filled the entire lot. It was similar in appearance to the still-standing warehouses on the other side of Delaware Avenue (now being converted into "Penn Treaty Village Pennthouses), but pre-dated them by a few years.
Perloff named the building the "Poplar Street Stores", Building C in his local warehousing empire. Here, any and all kinds of dry goods were stored. The warehouse was quite successful due to its proximity to the bustling industrial riverfront and its direct link to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad's freight lines. The Poplar Street Stores would stay in continuous operation under that name until at least 1960.
Pretty much the only existing ground-level picture of the Poplar Street Stores building, visible on the left. Image from PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Department of Records.
In 1966, that building came into the ownership of scrap metal and steelmonger Samuel Tabas. Born Samuel Tabachnik, Tabas was one of the most badass self-made businessmen in the region. He started his career as a teen in Russia, collecting junk and rags and selling them out of a pushcart. When he came to Philadelphia in 1904, he dealt in scrap metal and had enough money in two years to start the Acorn Iron & Supply company out of a yard and warehouse in Atlantic City.
Later on, Tabas expanded into the steel and hospitality businesses, constantly growing the empire. In the 1930s and 40s, he began acquiring all the properties along this empty lot's part of the river and ran Acorn out of the old industrial buildings and yards on those sites. The Poplar Street Stores property was renovated and used as part of his company into the 1970s.
Though it is unclear when the building was demolished, the empty lot had already taken on its current appearance by 1983, when the huge double billboard was erected on the site. By this point, the Tabas family was using this area for its Riverfront Complex, now the site of Waterfront Square, which included the 520-seat Riverfront Restaurant and Dinner Theater.
The Tabas family proposed a diner for the site of this lot in 1993 but it never happened. In 1994, the land was part of a deal that the family tried to make with a casino operator back when Pennsylvania was first considering legalizing gambling, but that fell through as well. In 1996, plans were made to make the space into a surface parking lot, but nothing happened. In 2002, when the Acorn Iron & Supply office (now Yards Brewery) was being made into an indoor skateboard park, the lot was again proposed to become a surface parking lot to serve that space. Again, the lot stayed unused. In 2003, the lot's billboards were officially legalized and yet another parking lot, this time with an enclosing gate, was approved. It ended up being used as surface parking for the construction workers at Waterfront Square in 2005, but was never paved.
Currently, the lot still remains under the ownership of the Tabas family, under their philanthropic arm, the Samual Tabas Family Foundation. You can read all about the history (and endless drama) of the Tabas family here. Unlike the multitude of empty lots I've told you about, the vacancy of this lot is actually licensed as such and will remain so until February 28th, 2014. After that, the Tabas descendants will have to decide what the hell to do with it. Things around here have changed quite a bit since that license was granted in 2004. The presence of Sugarhouse Casino, Waterfront Square, the Yards Brewery, the Penn Treaty Pennthouses, the dedicated bike lane on Penn Street, and the plans for the Canal Street properties to the northwest have added lots of value to this shitty little triangle of land. Hopefully, the living Tabas's will make the right choice.
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