A monster UPS warehouse threatens Far Northeast Philly. Residents fear gridlock
Residents and some businesses fear an influx of gridlock and pollution. Straddling two Philly neighborhoods, a UPS hub would be among the Philly region’s largest warehouses.
Nancy Waibel, a 70-year-old widow in the Far Northeast, is about to get a new neighbor that she wants nothing to do with. The package giant UPS has proposed a million-square-foot distribution center two blocks from her redbrick twin home.
The projected surge in new traffic would add 4,650 trucks and cars in the neighborhood — each day — from the “high volume” warehouse hub.
“I just can’t imagine living in the neighborhood when this is built,” said Waibel, who was raised in the house. “And I have had my sixth heart attack. I feel like I will be housebound because of the traffic.”
With many malls dying, warehouse space for online retail is much in demand. Amazon leases nearly 60 warehouses of at least 100,000 square feet across the Philadelphia region, the CoStar Group said last fall. Land for warehouses can now be worth more than sites for offices, causing distribution centers to creep into industrial and residential areas.
Backers of the UPS project, which include Gov. Tom Wolf, tout its good jobs, development effects, and the growth of an iconic company. But critics say the site off Red Lion Road, surrounded mostly by houses, would have a disastrous impact on local residents and some businesses, and should be stopped.
“We are not against development,” said Jack O’Hara, president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League, which has gone to court to stop the project. “We are not tree huggers. We are not against UPS. We are not against the package delivery business. We are not against unions. We are not against jobs. It is the size and scale of this particular project and the damage that it will inflict on the community with traffic. The whole fabric of this area will change with the massive infusion of traffic.”
It could be larger, developer says
Straddling Somerton and Bustleton, the UPS hub would be among the region’s largest warehouses with 245 loading docks, 1,827 parking spaces for vehicles, trucks, and trailers, and truck-fueling and washing stations. The property owner, Commercial Development Co. Inc. in St. Louis, said the 138 acres, a former Budd Co. manufacturing site and golf course, is zoned for industrial uses that include warehouses and does not need special variances.
In promotional material, Commercial Development says the UPS distribution center is far smaller than the 14 million square feet of space that the zoning allows on the property, and its redevelopment “will bring UPS, a strong corporate anchor and community partner, to Northeast Philadelphia.”
Its economic impact would be $300 million immediately with the potential to grow to $500 million a year by 2032 through jobs and other activity, the firm said. The property also is in a Keystone Opportunity Enterprise Zone with special tax breaks.
“UPS strives to be a good neighbor and business partner in the communities we live and work in,” a UPS spokesperson said. “We have open communication with city and state officials and continually evaluate where and how to best expand our facilities to meet growing customer demand. In every location, we work to ensure our operations abide by all local ordinances.”
Bustleton and Somerton residents, though, fear the influx of vehicle exhaust, noise, overburdened local roads, and the blaze of lights.
After the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections issued permits for the project in December 2020, the Greater Bustleton Civic League challenged the decisions with the Zoning Board of Adjustment and lost.
The group then joined with Sandmeyer Steel Co., a 115-employee firm next to the proposed UPS distribution center, to file appeals with Common Pleas Court in November, seeking to reverse the Zoning Board’s decision. The civic league contends that the property was zoned for industrial purposes in a bygone era and not for the intensive activity that UPS would bring. A hearing is scheduled for June 29.
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$4 million in traffic upgrades
Andreas Heinrich, a traffic consultant hired by the Greater Bustleton Civil League, estimated the traffic flow from the UPS facility at 4,650 vehicles a day based on its function as a “high cube parcel hub,” an industry term for a highly automated facility. “What UPS is proposing is not a warehouse of the old style,” he said. The traffic from a traditional warehouse would be 1,800 trucks and cars a day, according to estimates.
Stephen Collins, an executive vice president at Commercial Development, said that the city and state signed off on the traffic studies for the project and that the developer has agreed to more than $4 million in traffic improvements. He added that UPS would not agree to locate its distribution center there if “its trucks were going to be stuck in traffic.”
In court papers, the property owner’s lawyers say that city zoning officials acted properly and that “hundreds of full-time jobs ... and improvements in the regional supply chain ... should not be held up or delayed any longer because of a neighboring business and community organization’s complaints about the intensity or size of a legally conforming use.”
Though it’s not on a highway interchange, as many big distribution centers are, it’s easy to see why UPS is interested in the site: It’s about 2.3 miles to Roosevelt Boulevard, 6.7 miles to I-95, and 7.1 miles to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And 800,000 people live within 20 minutes of driving, aiding package delivery.
UPS’s main entrance will be on Red Lion Road. Even now, traffic gets choked up at intersections along the main artery, residents say. Maureen Greene, a longtime civic activist who lives on Bustleton Avenue about two miles away, asked: “How many trucks can you put into one area? These were roads that were not meant for tractor-trailers.”
Longtime residents recall childhoods amid open land and vegetable gardens. Waibel moved there in the 1950s as a young girl. The Budd manufacturing plant employed many workers, but the traffic was mostly when the shift changed, not continually all day.
“We are trying hard to keep our areas a viable and beautiful residential area, and I believe the value of our homes will go down when people see the traffic,” said Marlene Markowitz, who lives on Verree Road, about a mile from the proposed UPS center.
Because of the pandemic, the community didn’t participate in the development process as it would have, and information on the proposed project was hard to come by, said Chris Bordelon, former president and current board member of the Somerton Civic Association. “I look at this and I think elected officials let us down.”
‘Heck with the neighborhood’
Ron Sandmeyer, the third-generation leader at the family-owned Sandmeyer Steel, worries not only about the traffic but his workers’ safety.
In the early 1960s, Sandmeyer Steel, which sells custom stainless steel plates to water-treatment and chemical plants, relocated its Port Richmond plant to the Far Northeast. Over time, the city’s economic development arm, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., or PIDC, paved a road with a cul-de-sac through vacant land behind Sandmeyer Steel. The city called it Sandmeyer Lane and PIDC sold small parcels there to light-industrial firms.
This industrial park on Sandmeyer Lane and the site for the proposed UPS distribution center coexisted for decades. But here’s where concerns arise: A prior owner of the UPS site bought a building at the end of Sandmeyer Lane. As proposed, that structure will be torn down and the property paved for a truck entrance to the UPS hub — via Sandmeyer Lane. So the lane with a cul-de-sac will become a through street to the UPS hub.
Because Sandmeyer Lane cuts through his steel complex, with operations on both sides of it, Sandmeyer estimates that 1,000 UPS trucks a day could traverse the lane that his workers cross with forklifts. They will have to navigate that tractor-trailer traffic. .
Collins said that the developer has agreed to traffic mitigation on Sandmeyer Lane as part of the more than $4 million in improvements, including upgraded traffic lights and some road widening.
Sandmeyer believed he reached an agreement with UPS so that the delivery giant would not run its trailers on the lane during weekday work hours. But he couldn’t obtain the agreement in writing, he said.
“I’ve come around to the idea that they are going to do what’s good for UPS and the heck with the neighborhood,” he said.
“The city seems to bend over backward to bring someone here,” Sandmeyer added. “But we have been here forever.”