Shannon Lindsay lives in Island Green Estates, a subdivision off Red Lion Road in Bustleton that borders the now closed Island Green Country Club. When she and her husband purchased their home, they expected a peaceful community across from a golf course.
Now, Lindsay is concerned her quiet life in this mostly residential part of the city will soon be disrupted. Like many of her neighbors, she is frustrated with the lack of information from the City about incoming development at 1 Red Lion Rd.
For the better part of the past year, large trucks have been coming and going from the site. On any given day, excavators and backhoes can be seen moving large mounds of dirt across the lot, preparing for … something.
A lack of clarity has local residents unnerved.
“The uncertainty is what’s killing us,” Lindsay said at a July community meeting about development at the parcel.
A HISTORIC PROPERTY
The nearly 138 acre lot, which comprise both 1 Red Lion Road and 10098 Sandmeyer Lane, borders two Philadelphia neighborhoods — Somerton and Bustleton — and the eastern edge of Montgomery County. Each day, thousands of cars drive past the overgrown industrial site.
This particular lot is somewhat infamous in Northeast Philadelphia. It was once the Budd Company — a massive aviation and railcar industrial site, dating back to World War II when it was used to build transportation equipment for Allied soldiers. The Budd Company purchased the site after the war and began making railcars, relying heavily on railways to distribute its products.
At its peak in the 1960s and ‘70s, Budd employed almost 2,000 workers at its Red Lion Road facility. The company thrived as the area around it was experiencing a push for residential development and neighborhoods began to pop up around the site.
The Budd Company ceased its operations in the 1980s, and the plant closed completely in 1987. It left behind an idle lot and polychlorinated biphenyls — or PCBs, a man-made chemical deemed environmentally unsafe and banned in 1979 — buried in barrels at various locations on the property. Transit America purchased Budd in the 1990s and performed several rounds of environmental remediation on the site.
In the late 1990s, Transit America sold the land to White Pine Partners LLC, which turned the space into a golf course adjacent to a country club community in the early 2000s, but closed the golf course in 2011 in the wake of the Great Recession.
White Pine sold the land to Teva, a pharmaceutical company that expected to use the site for its warehouse — another plan that faltered only two years after it was announced.
In March 2018, a new company — Commercial Development Corporation, which specializes in the remediation of brownfield sites — announced it purchased the plot of land and is marketing it as almost 1.9 million-square feet of distribution space in a prime location.
When a permit was issued to bring infill dirt onto the site several months ago, creating a massive pile of dirt in the middle of the parcel, residents and community leaders started asking questions about the future of the site, fearful any plans for development had already occurred behind closed doors.
President of the Somerton Civic Association Chris Bordelon, along with Greater Bustleton Civic League President Jack O’Hara, have made an effort on behalf of concerned community members to find out what’s going on at the former Budd Company site straddling the border between their two communities.
But with little response from elected officials and CDC, both communities are left wondering what a large-scale distribution facility could mean for their neighborhoods.
O’Hara and Bordelon have spent the past several months trying to find out any and all information about the site.
They’ve filed several Right To Know requests, contacted their City Council representative Brian O’Neill, and hosted joint information sessions about the site.
O’Neill’s office has not returned multiple requests for comment from Philadelphia Neighborhoods or community members on possible developments at the Red Lion Road site. This seems at odds with a recent article cast the councilmember as someone who listens and gives deference to residents who live closest to development projects. The story quoted O’Neill defending shutting down a much smaller development project stating, “When people want to ruin neighborhoods, I don’t take to them kindly.”
A Right to Know request filed by Philadelphia Neighborhoods for any communication from O’Neill about Philadelphia’s “largest development-ready tract of land,” which sits in his district, resulted in the councilmember’s office only producing an email from Bordelon, also requesting more information from O’Neill.
O’Hara and Bordelon are only volunteers. They don’t have an office or staff to help and hold full-time jobs. They’re residents of their respective neighborhoods.
“We are one of you,” O’Hara told a room of about 60 Bustleton and Somerton residents in July at a community meeting the two put together to inform the public about the site.
They want the residents in their neighborhoods to have accurate information before a major move in the potential development of the site occurs.
“We’re left to speculate the worst,” O’Hara said earlier this summer about only having minimal information, knowledge they have been forced to find on their own.
When Bordelon filed a Right to Know request to the City for records regarding the confidentiality or nondisclosure of information pertaining to “development, accessibility to vehicular traffic, taxation of land or buildings, or environmental conditions,” he was denied. When he appealed to the state of Pennsylvania, it dismissed part of the appeal and granted part. On Nov. 28, 2018, the state’s final determination directed the City of Philadelphia to turn over the appropriate documents within 30 days. It has yet to do so.
A glimpse of public information about the future of the site is detailed in a press release from CDC, which mentioned sites potential “warehousing, distribution, and general industrial uses.”
One trickle of information from the City came in a 2017 Committee on Finance subcommittee meeting about renewing various Keystone Opportunity Zones (KOZ), of which 1 Red Lion Rd. and 10098 Sandmeyer Lane are designated as. In the course of that meeting, Senior Deputy Director of Commerce for the City of Philadelphia Duane Bumb made a reference to a company interested in the sites as a distribution center, though Bumb said he couldn’t name the potential tenants because of nondisclosure agreements.
When reached for comment, Bumb explained that nondisclosure agreements are a common practice in exploratory conversations between municipalities and prospective development projects. In fact, according to Bumb, the Commerce Department itself did not even know who the tenant was because the city agency dealt with a site consultant as an intermediary. That unnamed entity referred to during the KOZ hearing eventually passed on the Northeast parcels and chose another state.
“It’s unfortunate,” Bumb said of the gossip and speculation that has circulated around the site.
According to a recent news report, United Parcel Service has expressed an interest in the site, which would mean many more delivery trucks coming and going.
“There is no additional information to share,” Kim Krebs, spokeswoman for UPS, said via email. “What I can tell you is UPS continually evaluates where and how to best expand to meet growing customer demand. Philadelphia is one of the locations UPS is considering to further optimize our ground network across the Northeast. Property leases are one of many initial steps in the feasibility and planning process for any potential facility development projects.”
With UPS mentioned as the prospective tenant, O’Hara and Bordelon expect plans for the development to ramp up soon, but still do not know when this will happen or whether their communities will have time to voice their opinion.
“It’s very frustrating for me,” O’Hara said. “I’m at a loss. It can’t be behind the curtains. It’s got to be very transparent.”
REMEDIATION AND PUBLIC OVERSIGHT
Because the property is a brownfield site — the technical definition for a piece of commercial property whose potential uses may be complicated by environmental contamination — local leaders and neighbors have paid careful attention to potential development at the site over the years.
The CDC website has a page dedicated to explaining its sustainable redevelopment strategy. This outlines it’s approach in four steps: purchasing the brownfield site, taking on all environmental risks associated with the parcel, remediating the land to satisfy governmental regulations, and bringing the property to a standard to attract potential buyers of the formerly distressed property.
“This is a site with some environmental issues that will require additional clean fill be brought onto the property as part of an environmental remediation plan,” Bumb said.
Remediation of the land to environmentally safe standards, which began in January, should take about a year, with several tons of fill dirt trucked to the site. Bumb also acknowledged that more public information is not likely to be forthcoming until the remediation is complete and permits are pulled to begin the construction.
Large-scale developments that pass a certain size threshold could be subject to a civic design review, in which a developer goes before a panel, including the local civic organization, to discuss their site plans.
O’Hara believes holding civic design review for this development would ease many of the concerns about the site, like its effect on traffic patterns and noise, among other issues.
“We’re looking for assurance,” O’Hara said.
The site is currently zoned for industrial use, which means CDC does not have to undergo review or hearing processes to change zoning. This allows a company to avoid several means by which the public could access more information about the possible development taking place on the site, like a zoning variance hearing.
In the past three to five years, the Philadelphia zoning code has become a much more transparent, so when a developer’s plans fit within a property’s permitted uses, there are fewer opportunities for registered community organizations or civic groups to exercise oversight, Bumb said.
Since the two parcels have been designated as industrial zones dating back to when the Budd Company was still operational, and distribution centers fall under that designation, without a need to change the zoning of the properties, no additional approvals from the City are required.
THE POTENTIAL IMPACT
Business owners near the site have said trucks filled with dirt, coming and going from 1 Red Lion Rd., have been a particular nuisance.
Irene Belilovesky, owner of the Masters Barber Shop on Sandmeyer Lane near Red Lion Road, said the trucks bringing dirt onto the site are “awful,” adding that she worries she is breathing in dust coming off the trucks.
“I don’t know what I’m breathing,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
For many residents, traffic impacts of new development worry them more than whether or not a new owner or tenant will be good environmental stewards of the site.
Red Lion Road is a major thoroughfare for residents of Bustleton, Somerton and Lower Moreland Township. A recent traffic count report from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission notes that more than 11,000 vehicles traveled on Red Lion Road from Bustleton Avenue to the Montgomery County line in October 2018.
A potential design suggests plans include more than 350 truck bays and parking for 473 trailers and 704 vehicles. Residents are concerned that if the site is being redeveloped as a large warehouse, this would exacerbate an already existing traffic problem on Red Lion Road.
When the parcel was owned by Teva, a traffic impact study submitted by the pharmaceutical company showed its warehouse designs would result in 300 trucks traveling on Red Lion each day.
Teva’s study was submitted in 2011, and CDC has not submitted one, said Richard Montanez, the deputy commissioner for transportation for the Streets Department.
When reached for comment about potential impacts and tenants, CDC was not “ready to discuss” the industrial site at this time, wrote John Kowalik, CDC’s director of marketing and public relations in an email to Philadelphia Neighborhoods in June 2019. Recent requests for follow up were not responded to.
Bordelon has compiled a substantial amount of documentation about the potential impact a distribution center can have on a neighborhood. Because warehouses usually bring truck and trailer traffic, residents and officials are concerned about the ability of local infrastructure to handle an increase in heavy truck traffic.
“Add truck volume that would come with a warehouse of that size that is a significant increase to an already congested roadways,” O’Hara said.
CDC marketing materials tout the parcel is available as a “big box distribution space,” and that it has “Easy access to US Route 1, I-95, and I-276 (Pennsylvania Turnpike).” But for any big box distributor or e-commerce business, access to these highways is of some distance. From the 1 Red Lion Road it’s roughly 2.3 miles to Route 1, 6.7 miles to I-95, 7.1 miles to the PA Turnpike and nearly 25 miles to the Philadelphia International Airport. Miles that snake through residential communities not designed with high volume commercial traffic in mind.
Both the Bustleton and Somerton civic associations have asked for more information about traffic impact, but the answers have not been forthcoming.
“These are the questions we are hoping officials are considering,” O’Hara added.
While city officials won’t comment on the development or possible impact on the surrounding communities, the rumored tenant weighed in on its relationship with residents in the immediate area of its business.
“UPS already has facilities in the city and we always strive to be a good neighbor,” Krebs said. “We are different as a company in that UPS has a long history of engaging with and giving back to the communities where we work and live.
Faced with few details and little communication from city offices, O’Hara and Bordelon have tried to stay away from speculation and stick to the facts about the future of the site.
The lack of clarity causes effects no one wants: uncertainty and gossip.
“It spreads around the neighborhood,” O’Hara added. “The rumor mill is really easy to get rolling.”
Taking a position on whether the site is good or bad for the community seems premature, O’Hara said. Since residents can’t seem to get answers from anyone about what is happening in their own backyard, they don’t have the facts that could inform a decision.
Although the residents of Bustleton and Somerton are neither for or against the development of 1 Red Lion Rd., what they are clearly for is information.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” O’Hara said.
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