Developer Michael Samschick of Core Realty, which owns much of the property along Canal, is locking down the final pieces of the project.
He declined to comment, pending the release of details in the weeks ahead to community associations in Fishtown and Northern Liberties.
"I would prefer not to discuss anything," Samschick said, "until we've had discussions with all the neighborhood groups."
He said only that the project would be "family-friendly."
People who are familiar with his plan say it could help to revitalize a section of the central Delaware that has been long on potential, but short on activity.
The area is directly west of the SugarHouse Casino near Frankford.
"It's a no-man's land," said Thomas Corcoran, president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), a city-supported nonprofit that has created a master plan for development on the waterfront.
Canal Street, Corcoran said, could become "a funky, quirky organizing element" for Samschick's project and "make this area come alive."
The concept is to convert some of the big, empty commercial buildings into a mix of entertainment uses. Core Realty owns the massive Ajax Metal Co. in the 1000 block of Frankford Avenue, as well as the old Dry Ice Corp., where East Allen Street turns into Canal Street.
Restaurants and shops would open onto Canal Street as well as Frankford.
Corcoran said the concept would adhere to the city's new master plan for the central Delaware area, which seeks to extend the street grid of neighborhoods to the water's edge. By restoring existing buildings and revitalizing a neglected thoroughfare, the project would stitch the area to surrounding communities.
"He gets the fact that these things need to be integrated into neighborhoods," Corcoran said.
The DRWC has invested in making "connector streets" like Race, Spring Garden, and Columbia more inviting walkways to the waterfront.
Canal Street has a history that reaches back to colonial times.
The Cohocksink Creek, the tortuous precursor to the canal and street, emptied into marshland along the Delaware River.
During the American Revolution, British troops dammed the creek as a line of defense when they occupied Philadelphia in 1777.
In the early 1800s, the creek became a canal to accommodate barges carrying materials to the city's flourishing workshops.
But all the slaughterhouses and factories that dumped waste into the canal made it a fetid public-health hazard.
By the late 1800s, the city had paved over the canal, diverting the waterway into a culvert.
Samschick has privately discussed his ideas with city officials, but has not yet presented information to the city Planning Commission.
His company also is converting twin concrete storage buildings at Brown Street and Delaware Avenue into 192 loft apartments. One of the eight-story buildings - the Pennthouses at Penn Treaty Village - is completed; the other is under way.
Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, said some members of his group have had informal discussions with Samschick.
The idea of breathing new life into old buildings will probably get community support, he said. "That reuse is something that people definitely like," Ruben said. But if Samschick is planning large-scale entertainment, "that always has concerns."
The community, he said, will want not only good design, but also enforceable controls on such issues as parking, traffic, and liquor service.
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