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Amazon built a plant last year in Southwest Philadelphia. When will it open?

The brand-new package distribution center sits empty on a former GE site three blocks south of Bartram High School.

This Amazon distribution facility takes up three blocks near John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia on land SEPTA wanted for a trolley repair facility.
This Amazon distribution facility takes up three blocks near John Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia on land SEPTA wanted for a trolley repair facility.Read moreJoseph N. DiStefano

The new Amazon facility in the heart of Southwest Philadelphia looks a lot cleaner than the cement rubble of the former General Electric generator factory that lay for 20 years over three blocks not far from John Bartram High School.

But the blue-and-white, 140,000-square-foot Amazon package distribution center, with its pristine black-asphalt parking spaces for 300 cars and 600 vans and trailers, is all too immaculate.

It hasn’t opened yet, nearly a year after major construction was completed. Weeds are crawling up the back fences, and the 300 to 500 jobs, starting at $15 an hour, that were promised in a neighborhood that needs them have yet to materialize.

“Amazon made promises. They have not followed through,” said State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Philadelphia), who championed the project in early 2021.

The Amazon project displaced a SEPTA plan for the 29-acre property, which stretches from 67th Street to 70th between store-lined Elmwood Avenue and the busy Northeast Corridor rail tracks. The change in developers upset supporters who had hoped the transit agency would buy the site for a bargain $5.7 million and build its trolley barn there, instead of having to seek higher-priced ground elsewhere.

“Many of us said we would support this project because it would bring jobs into the community. But we have grown frustrated over the last several months,” Williams said. “They are not communicating. It has been really, really insulting. It has been disrespectful.”

There is “no exact timeline yet,” Amazon spokesman Steve Kelly said Monday. He added that “we’re proud to be part of the Philadelphia community, appreciate the support and patience of local officials … We look forward to our continued growth, including the launch of our newest delivery station on Elmwood Avenue.”

It’s not just Elmwood Ave. Amazon has delayed, cancelled or closed dozens of sites this year, according to this CNBC report, which listed those locations but did not include the Southwest Philly site. The shutdowns included a delivery center in Bellmawr, Camden County, which was shut and put out for lease in June. (Added Oct. 6). -- Montgomery County readers report another local Amazon facility built last year, at 53 Germantown Pike in East Norriton Township, also has yet to open. (Added Sept. 27.)

SEPTA, meanwhile, is now negotiating the purchase of a former steel fabricating plant at 5100 Grays Ave. near Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philadelphia. It’s valued at $21.8 million.

» READ MORE: Amazon got land SEPTA wanted. Will it delay a much-needed trolley upgrade?

Why a for-profit employer was appealing

SEPTA officials had worked for years to raise money and win the right to take the GE site by eminent domain. But last year Williams and other elected officials from West Philadelphia — arguing that a taxpaying, for-profit employer would help officials lure more national, for-profit employers — derailed the SEPTA proposal and cleared the way for Amazon to buy the site for $9.6 million, according to city records.

Contractors put up the warehouse quickly, with most of the work completed and permitted last year. Tall black metal fencing was added over the winter, and a network of cameras and computers connected in May, according to city records.

Since then, the plant has stood empty. What changed?

Last year, Amazon was in rapid growth mode, laying out dozens of million-square-foot-plus warehouses and many more neighborhood delivery centers like the one in Southwest Philly, as Americans, kept home by a second year of pandemic restrictions, bought more and more online.

This year, consumers are back in stores, the economy has slowed, and even Amazon has cooled. After seven years of record profits, the company lost money in the first half of the year. Sales still grew, but at the slowest rate since the early 2000s.

An Amazon hiring slowdown

The new chief executive, Andy Jassy, who succeeded founder Jeff Bezos, announced a hiring slowdown and cost-cutting measures. The number of Amazon workers fell to 1.5 million on June 30, from 1.6 million as of March 31. The company’s high employee turnover, especially at packaging centers, means it doesn’t have to lay people off for head count to drop; it just has to hire a little more slowly.

After building giant warehouses in Wilmington; Swedesboro, Gloucester County; the Lehigh Valley and near other cities, as well as delivery centers like the one in Southwest Philly closer to customers, Amazon had so much unused space nationally that it was looking to sublet 10 million square feet to tenants, the Wall Street Journal reported in May.

Is that why the stretch of Elmwood Avenue has remained quiet? Amazon officials declined to comment on whether or how the national slowdown is affecting plans in Philadelphia.

Williams said he’s feeling the same chill: “When they wanted to come here, we heard from their lobbyists, and their corporate group was quick to meet with us. They talked about investing and how they would organize among our large Liberian community and other communities.

“All that we have seen of that so far is some pop-up ads that said to come and get a job. But once they started to develop the property, it all fell off, to where we have grown frustrated. We had been told Amazon is that way nationally, that they are detached. But they promised to be a good neighbor here. Now that they have apparently hit a bump in the road, they are not communicating.”

He added the lack of information, even to leaders who faced criticism for supporting the company, “is the worst thing. It is really, really, really insulting. I can tell you that they have hit a big boulder here in Philadelphia.”

Williams says he now wishes he had supported SEPTA’s plan.

Others deliver company cutbacks

Amazon isn’t the only delivery company to cut back as consumers have resumed shopping in person and the economy has slowed. Philadelphia-based Gopuff, which said last winter it employed 15,000 nationally — about 1% the size of Amazon’s workforce — cut 1,500 jobs earlier this year and said it would close 76 unprofitable or low-volume neighborhood distribution centers in an effort to regain profitability.

Gopuff cofounder Yadir Gola said last week that he’s glad the company made cuts in the spring “before other companies” and is now better suited to resume growth selectively.

Even without the Elmwood Avenue warehouse, Amazon remains one of the Philadelphia region’s largest for-profit employers, with more than 15,000 workers — more than Vanguard or Wawa employ regionally — at sites including its largest-anywhere warehouse on the site of the former General Motors assembly complex outside Wilmington. (Amazon is now adding a similarly-sized, 4 million square foot center in Ontario, Calif.)

Staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald contributed to this article.