As Amazon expands across the Philadelphia region, it is facing something of a neighborhood revolt against its oldest warehouse in the city.
The last-mile facility at 4219 Richmond St. has proven to be an unpopular addition to the tight-knit rowhouse section of Bridesburg in the city’s lower Northeast section.
It starts with the traffic. “It’s crazy here, it really is,” says Yvonne Stephens, who leads the Bridesburg Community Action Alliance. “We deal with enough comings and goings in Bridesburg, and [Amazon brings] just even more chaos. We have some Amazon drivers that are just crazy drivers. We’ve had accidents, cars getting sideswiped.”
Amazon’s growth has been astronomical during the pandemic, both nationally and in the region. The company posted more than 35,000 job openings in the Philadelphia area last year, compared with 5,000 for the second-biggest advertisers, Lowe’s and Penn Med, according to the University City District which analyzed data from Burning Glass Technologies. By the end of this year, Amazon will have 57 warehouses across the region, with more than half opening in the last year. Worldwide, Amazon added 500,000 workers in 2020, including 400,000 in the United States, and grew its real estate footprint by a startling 50%, largely to meet growing consumer demands for home deliveries.
Amazon’s warehouse in Bridesburg is a tiny facet of that story, representing one of its smallest operations in the region.
While the largest Amazon warehouses exceed one million square feet, the Bridesburg center comes in at 65,490 square feet. But what counts as small in the Amazon universe can make a big impact on a dense urban neighborhood.
Historically, big businesses aren’t alien to Bridesburg, which has about 8,000 residents. This once-industrial neighborhood, where many families go back generations, used to host large manufacturing concerns such as the old chemical giant Rohm & Haas.
Cut off from the rest of Philadelphia by railway lines and I-95, and with its back to the Delaware River, Brideburg has only three roads coming in and out. Amazon’s block-long structure sits near the mouth of one of those thoroughfares.
The facility dates to the 1940s, hemmed in by a line of midcentury rowhouses to the west and sports fields to the south (home to the youth teams of the Bridesburg Cougars).
The Richmond Street complex has been consistently occupied by trucking and logistics companies since it opened. But residents say that previous tenants have not hosted the number of employees or the volume of traffic that Amazon has created since it opened in 2017.
Councilmember Bobby Henon, who represents the neighborhood, says that the warehouse operates round the clock, with about 150 employees, and that traffic has picked up during the pandemic. (Amazon would not confirm these numbers.)
He says most of the complaints his office fields are about the behavior of the company’s drivers. Concerns about traffic surged in 2020, with his office fielding 43 complaints in the last year (compared with 103 for the previous nine years). The majority have been about Amazon and delivery vehicles. That doesn’t include complaints received by social media or at community meetings, which his office does not track.
“It’s terrifying the way they drive around, every time they ride by I’m yelling for the kids to get out of the street,” says Matthew Pickels, who lives in the neighborhood with his wife and four children ages 5 to 16.
“No lie, they do like 50 miles an hour up our street,” says Pickels, “and every block in Bridesburg has 30 kids playing out front. It’s not like it’s here or there, one guy who drives crazy. It’s every one of them, just flies through the neighborhood.”
Amazon maintains that the concerns of Bridesburg residents are being addressed and that the company seeks to be a low-maintenance addition to the neighborhood.
“Amazon strives to be a great neighbor,” says Andre Woodson, an Amazon spokesperson. “We are working with local community leaders and follow all city permits and guidelines to ensure our Amazon site does not disrupt the community.”
The company’s facility on Richmond Street is one of its only regional locations in the midst of a dense urban area. Its five other current locations in the city are in industrial parks, such as the warehouse on Meetinghouse Road along the city’s Bucks County border, that offer some distance from residential areas.
But as the company expands rapidly across the region, some experts say its operations are bound to rub up against residential areas to meet the insatiable demands for home delivery.
Bridesburg’s experience with the company could be a sign of things to come, at least in communities such as Southwest Philadelphia, where a similarly situated warehouse is slated to open in 2022 — bringing Amazon’s locations in Philadelphia to seven.
“Consumers want two-day delivery or sooner, and the only way they can do it is to have items closer to consumers,” says Subodha Kumar, marketing and supply-chain professor at Temple’s Fox School of Business “What that means is that they are going to get into more residential areas. There’s no other way.”
Most of the complaints that light up the Bridesburg Facebook group, or are fielded by the Community Action Alliance, are focused on how quickly Amazon drivers speed through the neighborhood. (Immediate neighbors also fret about trash around the facility and workers waiting for the bus on their steps.)
“The quality-of-life issues the community has with this location … I think that’s just how [Amazon’s] business model works,” says Henon. “These drivers have to do a certain amount of deliveries in a certain time frame, so they’re in and out as quickly as possible, and sometimes that [results in] reckless [driving].”
Henon’s views accord with descriptions of working conditions lodged by former Amazon drivers in 2018, when they sued the company for wage theft in federal court in Philadelphia. Their lawsuit described a rigorous schedule, where drivers had to deliver 140 to 200 packages in a shift, a pace that they said caused them to “routinely [work] through their lunch without extra pay and [made them] unable to take short breaks due to the high volume of deliveries.” (Amazon settled the lawsuit with the drivers.)
In May, Henon said he reached out to Amazon to address community concerns.
Woodson says Amazon is taking steps “such as staggering breaks to avoid rush hour and working directly with our community partners, neighbors, and other stakeholders to help manage traffic.”
An afternoon negotiating with Henon produced an agreement that included a promise to appoint an on-site staff person to liaison with the neighborhood, address community concerns, and instruct workers on parking and driving protocols. The company also agreed to hold a job fair in Bridesburg and try to hire neighborhood residents, a possibility sweetened by the company’s $15-an-hour starting salaries with opportunities for raises.
The company also agreed to “work with subcontracted drivers to develop a plan for addressing driver behavior and conduct problems,” according to an email from Henon.
Exact details of how improvement will be measured were not included in the agreement, but Henon’s office plans to hold quarterly phone calls with the company to ensure that change actually happens.
Pickels says he’s glad to hear that the neighborhood’s concerns haven’t gone unnoticed. He says there has been a noticeable change in driver behavior in the last couple of weeks, since Henon held his meeting with Amazon’s representatives.
But he’s skeptical that change will last so long as drivers are under such intense pressure to shuttle goods to and from a warehouse near so many rowhouses.
“In some ways this is the way of the future if people want this convenience of [stuff] delivered to them in hours,” says Pickels. “But it is the neighborhoods that bear the brunt of the burden.”
The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.