In the three decades since the Budd Co. shuttered its assembly plant in Northeast Philadelphia, virtually every trace of that massive industrial complex has been erased. First, the hangars where Budd employees assembled Conestoga cargo planes and passenger rail cars were leveled, then the grounds were sculpted into an 18-hole golf course.
Residential developers soon followed, ringing the 136-acre site with large single-family homes and twins. With subdivisions named Country Club Estates and the Greens at Huntingdon Valley, this far corner of Philadelphia has come to feel more like an outpost of suburbia than a big-city neighborhood.
But instead of living next to a verdant fairway, those residents could soon find themselves overlooking a vast blacktop expanse. UPS has acquired a lease to develop a million-square-foot distribution center on the former Island Green golf course, which went belly up a decade ago. The planned sorting facility would be the largest of its type in Philadelphia, capable of handling more than 2,300 package trucks and tractor trailers a day. There will be 950 parking spaces for employees alone at the Bustleton site, which fronts on Red Lion Road.
Given our zeal for online shopping, it’s no surprise that UPS would seek a foothold in Northeast Philadelphia, which sits at the nexus of the Pennsylvania and South Jersey suburbs. Several e-commerce giants, including Amazon, TJ Maxx and DHL, are already there, and busily erecting enormous warehouses along the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor. Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of online retail, boasts a network of more than 50 fulfillment centers in the Philadelphia region, and its competitors are trying to catch up.
What makes the UPS project noteworthy is its location. Until recently, e-commerce companies tended to cluster their distribution centers on high-capacity roads close to highway interchanges. UPS’s new facility would be smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood, more than two miles from the Boulevard and almost 10 miles from I-95.
Although many factors went into UPS’s choice of the Red Lion Road site, a key one is this: As people demand ever-faster turnaround times — not just next-day delivery, but same-day delivery — the companies that bring us stuff are scrambling to find land close to their customers, preferably sites that are already zoned for industrial uses.
The former Island Green golf course fit the bill perfectly because the site’s zoning was never updated to reflect its evolution into a residential neighborhood. “There just aren’t many places where you can find a million square feet sitting idle,” observed Matthew Hertz, an expert on supply chains for the research company Second Marathon.
So fierce is the competition for land in the Philadelphia region that developers are increasingly going after existing buildings that have extensive grounds, said Michael Ruane, who tracks freight and logistics issues for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. The top candidates are golf courses, dead malls and office parks, the kinds of places that are often close to residential neighborhoods.
Just last month, demolition crews began demolishing the Burlington Center Mall in South Jersey to make way for a distribution center. Ruane expects that several office parks in Cherry Hill and Moorestown could be next, especially if the new tolerance for working remotely causes companies to give up their offices. The new DHL sorting facility on Roosevelt Boulevard replaced a former IRS office building that had been sitting empty for a decade.
The implications of these changes in land use are immense. As their distribution networks expand, retailers such as Amazon and Walmart will be able to fulfill our orders mere hours after we click “pay.” But warehouses will drastically alter the look of our surroundings. These immense, windowless structures tend to be almost identical in their designs, no matter where they are built. We may get free shipping, but the price could be a constant stream of truck traffic wending through our neighborhoods.
It’s the truck traffic that most concerns residents and businesses near the former Bustleton golf course. To be sure, Red Lion is a substantial road, with two lanes in each direction, but it is also lined with houses, schools and senior citizen apartments. “We’re not against the development of this parcel,” said Jack O’Hara, president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League. ”We’re not even against warehousing. We’re against the 24-hour, nonstop arrival of trucks, all day, every day.”
While the developer, Commercial Development Co. of St. Louis, has already obtained a building permit, the civic association is still trying to stop the project. Together with several local businesses, Greater Bustleton plans to appeal to the Zoning Board on Tuesday. The association’s lawyer, David Orphanides, argues that the scale of the UPS project goes well beyond what is allowed under its industrial zoning category because it includes a refueling station.
Commercial Development’s vice president, Steve Collins, disputes that analysis and argues that the UPS sorting facility clearly meets the zoning requirements. He also notes that his company is making $4 million worth of road improvements to lessen the impact of UPS’s truck traffic.
Given the project’s potential impact on Bustleton, you might expect city officials to rally to the cause. But opponents have gotten surprisingly little sympathy, O’Hara complained. That’s largely because Philadelphia officials tend to see these warehouse projects as an important source of jobs, especially for low-skill workers. Unlike some online retailers, UPS is a union operation that provides health care, pensions and paid vacations. For many city officials, a little extra truck traffic seems like a small trade-off for good jobs.
The problem is actually more complicated than the traffic-vs.-jobs argument would suggest. To make the site work for UPS, the site’s developer acquired a second parcel, which was originally part of the Sandmeyer Lane industrial park. That collection of low-slung buildings was established by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. in the late ’60s to help the city retain manufacturers at a time when they were abandoning old factories for the suburbs. Among the companies that settled in the Bustleton industrial park were its namesake, Sandmeyer Steel, which today employs 120 people, and is among the last steel fabricators in Philadelphia.
The company’s third-generation owner, Ron Sandmeyer, said he worries that UPS’s truck traffic could compromise the whole industrial park, especially if UPS uses the main street running through the industrial park — Sandmeyer Lane — as its primary vehicle exit.
“How am I going to move 20,000-pound plates of steel back and forth across Sandmeyer Lane when there are all those trucks going through?” he asked. “It feels like the city caters to new businesses coming to the city and forgets about the ones that have been the foundation for years.”
The hassles could be even worse for other business owners, such as Stelwagon Roofing Supply and Seravalli Contractors. Both have large yards where they unload deliveries of construction materials. But they also use Sandmeyer Lane as an extension of those yards. Together, these three businesses employ almost 400 people, at salaries that are double or triple what a warehouse job pays.
UPS is hardly the only delivery company setting up shop in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The same situation is developing in the city’s southwest, where Amazon just snagged a large site at 69th and Elmwood for a last-mile logistics center after outbidding SEPTA for the property. With its blocks of classic Philadelphia rowhouses, that neighborhood is even more densely settled than Bustleton.
This case also demonstrates how the frenzied search for warehouse sites skews our decision-making. SEPTA had hoped to use the site to build a maintenance yard where it could overhaul its trolley fleet and improve its service. It’s likely that the repair jobs would have been unionized and paid more than an Amazon warehouse job, although they would have been fewer in number. Now, SEPTA will have to search for another location for its trolley depot.
Yes, neighborhood residents will get jobs. But there will be a significant uptick in truck traffic on Elmwood Avenue, which is a relatively narrow street with trolley tracks running down the middle.
Clearly, there is no way to turn back the clock on e-commerce. Online sales have increased 5% just since the pandemic started, and that trajectory is sure to continue.
If we can’t stop clicking, the least we can do is choose our warehouse sites wisely. The former refinery site next to I-95, where Hilco plans to build a dozen fulfillment centers, is a perfect spot for those look-alike boxes. So is the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor. As for residential neighborhoods, not so much.