The convenience and speed of e-commerce have reshaped Philadelphia’s retail and transportation. A proposal for a new UPS warehouse could do the same to neighborhoods in the city’s Northeast.
The shipping giant has proposed a million-square-foot warehouse and distribution center on Red Lion Road near the city’s border with Lower Moreland. The space, most recently a golf course and once the site of Budd Co.’s rail car manufacturing plant, offers what has become increasingly critical to shipping companies: a large spread of land close to major arteries such as Roosevelt Boulevard and I-676 but also within a quick drive of the city’s population centers.
“It’s kind of the new paradigm of the way shipping is done and delivery to people’s homes,” said Carl Primavera, a lawyer representing UPS. “It’s going to provide next-generation jobs.”
Industrial space such as that on Red Lion Road is increasingly valuable in Philadelphia. Companies such as UPS and FedEx need “last-mile” distribution centers within six to nine miles of urban centers to respond to consumer demand for quick delivery of their online orders, particularly for such perishable items as groceries and prepared food, according to a 2018 brochure promoting e-commerce-related investment from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
National data show that the pandemic, which shut down businesses and prompted a surge in online shopping, may have hastened the growth of digital shopping by five years, according to IBM’s U.S. Retail Index Study.
“The industrial market is a very hot market right now, from a distribution standpoint,” said Stephen Collins, executive vice president for Commercial Development Co., the St. Louis firm that bought the Red Lion Road property for $18 million in 2018.
Though he declined to provide data on UPS’s delivery volumes in Philadelphia, Primavera said the company’s existing distribution center in Horsham has become overwhelmed because of the popularity of e-commerce.
The company estimates that the new facility would create about 900 new jobs. It would also likely put almost 5,000 more vehicles on the area’s roads.
"This is going to be the size of Citizens Bank dropped into a residential area,” said Jack O’Hara, a longtime resident in the Bustleton neighborhood and head of the Greater Bustleton Civic League, which, with the Somerton Civic Association, has led opposition to the warehouse plan.
The developer has not yet submitted the permit applications to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections needed to begin construction, a city spokesperson said.
O’Hara, 66, grew up in Bustleton, and 12 years ago moved back into his childhood home. Bustleton has long included industry as a close neighbor to residential neighborhoods. O’Hara and other opponents, though, fear that the traffic the warehouse would generate would overwhelm the community.
“If you drove up there any day, you can see how heavily congested it is,” O’Hara said. “There are herds of kids waiting for the light to change, and a herd of them cross Red Lion Road.”
From the city line to Roosevelt Boulevard, Red Lion Road has averaged about 287 crashes a year from 2015 to 2020, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. One of those, a crash at Bustleton and Red Lion Roads last year, killed two. There have been 113 crashes on the road so far this year.
“We’re concerned about the impacts of thousands of vehicle trips daily and nightly not just on Red Lion Road and nearby roads,” Chris Bordelon, president of the Somerton Civic Association, said during a September hearing before the Philadelphia Civic Design Review Committee, which publicly reviews large proposals and recommends changes.
The space where the warehouse would be built is zoned for industrial use, and its owner said having UPS as a tenant was the best option for the neighborhood. Other options would have brought multiple users to the site, Collins said, and could have resulted in years of construction.
“We thought we were bringing the best possible use and the best possible industrial use to the neighborhood, both from a size and from a prestige, and from a responsible corporate operations standpoint,” he said. “We honestly did consider the impact on the neighborhood and the value that would be brought to the neighborhood.”
The site would have four access points, two directly on Red Lion Road, and two on Sandmeyer Lane, which feeds into Red Lion Road. Sandmeyer Lane, which would become the access point for UPS’s tractor-trailers, is a heavily industrialized stretch with about two dozen businesses that also have tractor-trailer traffic. The design of the road already makes it difficult for the big vehicles to pull in and out as it is, said Bill Hill, general manager for Steelwagon Roofing Supply, located on Sandmeyer Lane. Adding UPS vehicles could bring travel to a standstill, he said.
“It’s untenable, is what I’m saying,” Hill said. “Once the tip of your truck comes out into the street, you become a detriment to everyone in this community.”
Traffic at similar UPS sites suggests the Red Lion Road development could have 1,348 commercial vehicles coming and going each day, as well as 3,450 passenger vehicles, according to a traffic impact evaluation submitted by the developer. Collins noted, though, that most of those would not be during rush hour. Traffic during peak hours would see about 200 to 260 additional vehicles.
A traffic impact statement says the developer will add improvements to eight intersections along Red Lion Road between Pine Road and Haldeman Road, and an intersection on Sandmeyer Lane, including upgrading street lights, signs, paving, and traffic signal infrastructure. There will also be sidewalk and curb improvements along Red Lion Road in front of the facility. The city’s Streets Department has reviewed the infrastructure changes and agreed with the improvements, a city spokesperson said.
Residents expressed concerns at the September Civic Design Review meeting about noise and light pollution, too.
“This has the potential of just devastating this community,” O’Hara said during the hearing. “The proposed use is overly intense.”
Members of the committee questioned how consistently truck noise, such as the beep of a vehicle backing up, would be heard on the site. The landscaping plan the developer shared was insufficient to protect the community from the noise and fumes that the site would produce, said committee member Ashley DiCaro.
In response to the feedback, Collins said landscaping plans would be made more robust. A series of community meetings is are planned. The message, he said, is that UPS won’t ruin the neighborhood.
“I’m not saying they’re going to be silent, but I personally don’t think they’re going to be disruptive,” he said. “UPS wants to be a good neighbor and a good citizen.”