Amazon rebuffs concerns over warehouse that sidelined land deal for SEPTA trolleys

Negotiations are still underway for a forthcoming community benefits agreement. Amazon said it did not intend to make major alterations to its proposal.

6901 Elmwood Avenue in Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood is the proposed site of an Amazon warehouse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

6901 Elmwood Avenue in Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood is the proposed site of an Amazon warehouse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Online retailer Amazon appeared for a second and final Civic Design Review meeting Tuesday, offering minimal changes to a proposed warehouse development that incensed some transit advocates by sidelining plans for a new SEPTA trolley depot.

Others that attended the advisory board meeting, which is operated by the city’s Planning Commission, also raised concerns about flooding and other environmental issues.

However, Maura Kennedy, an Amazon representative, said that while negotiations were still underway for a forthcoming community benefits agreement, the company did not intend to make major alterations to a proposed 140,000 square foot “last mile” logistics center.

She and Andy Ernesto, from development firm Trammell Crow, presented the transformation of the 1.2 million square foot Southwest Philadelphia property into a warehouse, parking lots, and truck loading spaces as a job creator –– bringing between 300 to 500 full-time positions paying $15 per hour to the area.

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“I just wanted to reiterate Amazon’s excitement and dedication to the site. You know, we are looking forward to being good community neighbors here,” said Kennedy, formerly a high-level staffer at the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections.

However, the Elmwood Avenue site, a one-time General Electric factory, had previously been eyed by SEPTA as a site for a new, larger trolley barn that would support the modernization of its aging light rail fleet.

While the agency had offered the site’s owner some $5.7 million and even took steps to acquire the land through eminent domain, they were effectively outbid by Amazon. SEPTA officials confirmed to PlanPhilly they were dropping their bid for the property last week, not long after the retailer secured public support from local political figures like City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and state Sen. Anthony Williams.

Both have promoted the use as an economic driver in a neighborhood with high unemployment.

“We thought it would be appropriate for both to be located there,” Williams told PlanPhilly last week. “And that we could figure out a way that they could both be appropriately situated in Southwest Philadelphia here and the community would have the benefit.”

But urbanist and transit advocacy groups criticized the proposal.

Will Herzog, the chair of SEPTA’s Youth Advisory Council, testified at the Planning Commission meeting that the fizzled land deal would be an issue for the Philadelphia 2035 transit plan, which recommended the site to be used as a trolley facility.

“Why are we putting a first-mile, last-mile facility right in the center of high-frequency light rail lines? Thousands of Amazon last-mile vehicles will be coming in and out of the facility, all day, creating a multitude of conflicts with this high-frequency light rail operation,” he said. “I’m really worried Amazon will induce traffic.”

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Similar issues were raised at a prior CDR meeting in March. Kennedy responded on Tuesday that Amazon had studied the surrounding roadway capacity and would aim to stagger shipments to decrease their involvement with morning and evening rush hour traffic.

Others from the flood-prone section of Southwest Philadelphia were concerned about environmental impacts. Carolyn Moseley, an Eastwick resident, said the neighborhood was still recovering from Tropical Storm Isaias in August and was concerned more development would exacerbate those issues.

“We know that climate change is upon us,” she said. “We are going to flood again, we just don’t know when. We’ve been overburdened with environmental violence … and we cannot take any more on,” she said.

Others also expressed concerns about pedestrian and transit access to the Amazon facility, while the CDR board previously suggested adding additional trees for aesthetic reasons, as well as the reduction of flooding. However, Ernesto, from the development company, said no to that idea citing security concerns.

In general, little changed about the Amazon proposal, although the development team said it intends to voluntarily coordinate a second community meeting. While the city’s CDR process is purely advisory, board member Ashley DiCaro expressed frustration with intransigence.

“It’s really disappointing to just see this thing not evolve at all after we spent hours talking about it the last time around,” she said.

Construction is set to begin in June and should be completed by May 2022.

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