Residents living in the neighborhoods surrounding a proposed development coming to 1 Red Lion Rd. expressed their continued frustration with the project, a United Parcel Service (UPS) warehouse planned for the former Budd Company site, during a Civic Design Review (CDR) meeting on Nov. 10.
Members of the Community Development Corporation (CDC), the developer building the warehouse, and UPS presented their plans for the site over Zoom. The UPS warehouse was first on the CDR’s long list of reviews for the meeting.
“This is the second time that we’ve seen this project,” said a committee member during the review.
CDR Chair Nancy Rogo Trainer, a member of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC), was the only committee member identified at the top of the meeting, though other members weighed in throughout.
A prior set of site plans were presented at a CDR meeting in September, where it was found that though those plans complied with existing zoning codes, the committee offered specific suggestions for improving the plans and incorporating community feedback.
According to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the CDR’s role is to consider public impacts of a particular development project’s design. After receiving suggestions at the September meeting, UPS and CDC had the opportunity to hold meetings with the surrounding community, incorporate their feedback, and present to the committee any changes made in the site’s project plans.
Christos Dinoulis of Bohler Engineering presented the site’s plans on behalf of UPS and CDC. As his presentation progressed, it became clear to the committee he was presenting nothing new to the public.
“Please just focus on the things that have changed since the last time that we saw this,” Trainer said.
Trainer, along with many residents, commented on the lack of substantive changes in the project plans for 1 Red Lion Rd. presented at the meeting.
“If there is no change, there’s no reason to go through this again,” Trainer said.
As the site’s development has progressed, local residents have continued to express their disapproval, mostly through registered community organizations (RCOs) like the Greater Bustleton Civic League (GBCL) and the Somerton Civic Association (SCA).
CDC and UPS presented their plans to the GBCL on Tuesday, Oct. 27, facing much disapproval from the community. The developers, however, have not met with the adjacent RCO, the Somerton Civic Association.
Screenshots showing changes between the first and second PCPC committee meetings. (Brian Nowosielski/PN)
After Dinoulis’ presentation, the meeting transitioned to Greg Waldman, a member of the PCPC, to read a staff summary of the project outlining the PCPC’s suggested changes and evaluating whether or not the plans for 1 Red Lion Rd. had incorporated those changes.
“The only change that was proposed is coordinating with SEPTA for routing buses on site and planting additional trees,” Waldman said.
The apparent lack of change was eye-opening for the committee, but it was nothing new for local residents and the RCOs. The CDR made it clear that UPS and the other companies involved in the development need to engage more with the community.
“The CDR committee strongly encourages additional community engagement before submitting the second CDR review,” Waldman said.
Aside from the lack of community engagement, the committee also noted the plans did not include specific details about environmentally conscious aspects of the warehouse originally promised by UPS and CDC.
“The developers proposed a roof that would be built to accommodate a solar array,” Waldman said. “However, they have not committed to installing that during the permitting phase.”
Soon after UPS and CDC’s presentation, the meeting was opened for public comments. The first to speak was the RCO representative, Chris Bordelon, president of the SCA.
In about a 10 minute-long speech, Bordelon summarized a letter the SCA sent developers addressing several of the community’s issues, issues his organization has not had the chance to discuss with developers, he said.
Bordelon addressed many of the promises made by the developers which they seem to be reneging on, including proposed community spaces on the property.
“The developers appear to suddenly reject the suggestion that part of the property become an amenity to the community for public use,” he said. “The materials say safety is the issue and they can’t let members of the public on the site.”
Several of spaces originally promised for community use now appear to be available for private commercial use, Bordelon said.
“Now for some reason they do think it’s safe for paying customers to access the site,” he said.
Greater Bustleton Civic League president Jack O’Hara was also in attendance and agreed with Bordelon.
“From the beginning there has been an absence of specific details related to this,” O’Hara said. “Those details have been superficial at best.”
Bordelon also listed zoning issues, speculation around the actual number of new jobs the development would bring, health concerns for surrounding neighbors, construction delays, a lack of transparency around tax breaks, and missing oversight documents as flaws in the developers’ approach to the process.
Above all of these issues, though, are concerns about an increase of vehicles the site will bring to the neighborhoods.
“Traffic is probably the most salient issue for many people in the surrounding communities,” Bordelon said. “[It] seems to make this project most obviously a poor fit for its surroundings.”
The GBCL hired an independent traffic engineer to review the developers’ traffic impact study, O’Hara said.
“He has found numerous inaccuracies throughout it,” he said. “If the volume of traffic is drastically understated, then all of this is mute. It is a lot of hard work down the drain.”
While the committee mentioned the developers’ lack of community engagement, Bordelon did push some of the blame off on the pandemic, noting the difficulty of organizing public meetings amid COVID-19.
“The pandemic has kept us from meeting,” Bordelon said.
However, he ended his monologue touching on the necessity of a community benefits agreement, a legally binding contract between the developers and local community about the property. Bills requiring community benefits agreements for development projects receiving City support have been debated by the Philadelphia City Council in the past, though Mayor Jim Kenney let the window of time to decide expire on the most recent draft ordinance in December 2019, preventing it from becoming law.
“The content of any agreement is something that needs to be discussed with fuller knowledge of the project,” Bordelon said. “The substance is something that within Somerton Civic is a matter about which the Civic’s membership has the ultimate say.”
Other individual residents also aired their complaints during the review.
“You seriously need to relocate to another area that is not residential,” resident Judith Livi said. “Who are you trying to kid here?”
The feedback presented to the CDR came from many different representatives of the local community.
“I cannot be quiet when my community and business is being put at risk,” Jack Bienenfeld, a local resident, developer, and engineer, said. “The development has the probability of doing irreparable harm to the community.”
After several minutes of comment from the community, Trainer proceeded with the rest of the meeting, closing public comment to move on to the next projects on the CDR’s list.
But not before mentioning this was the longest review she has ever been on committee for.
“It’s very disheartening to have exactly the same conversation twice,” she said. “There hasn’t been much change and there hasn’t been much dialogue.”
Members of the CDR expressed exasperation at the lack of change in the developer’s plans. They also agreed the development was no longer a CDR matter, but was now in the hands of the City’s planning office.
The project fits within existing zoning code and construction has gone through the appropriate permitting channels. But, the community resistance is notable.
With the Civic Design Review process effectively over, residents now have few opportunities to formally contest the development and make their voices part of the public record. Philadelphia city council members have latitude to intervene in development projects in their districts, though Councilmember Brian O’Neill has been noticeably silent on this project.
Furthermore, a committee member stated that, given the ongoing resistance to the development, the project could end up being disputed in court. The committee ended the review of 1 Red Lion Rd. by accepting all comments made, making them part of the public record.
“The minimum standard that a development should have to meet is that it do no harm to the community,” Bienenfeld said. “[Developers] have already begun and continued construction because they are convinced that what this board says or what the community feels doesn’t matter.”
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A major Zoning Board meeting is scheduled for this Tuesday at 9:00 am. We need all the help that can be mustered. When a zoning approval can be granted by one of the zoning engineers, then “modified” sometime later to include building that is specifically prohibited by zoning – something is systemically either outright illegal or grossly flawed.