Amazon has withdrawn its controversial plan to build a massive distribution center in Churchill three months after it received an approval from the borough council to move forward.
A group of residents opposing the development filed an appeal in court in January, delaying the project further after almost two years of discussions with public officials, multiple impact studies and an extensive public hearing process.
It’s that delay that may have killed the project in Churchill, according to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald said in a phone conversation that he attributes Amazon’s decision to move on to uncertainty about how long the plans would be delayed in court. He noted how much Amazon is building in the region, citing developments in Findlay and North Versailles, and his guess is that they will build the distribution center somewhere else in the region. “The borough council voted to approve it but then a group of people who didn’t like the decision of their elected officials filed an appeal. This puts a lot of delay and again, the business plan for companies is that they need to move forward. They cannot be sitting around.”
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Loni Monroe wrote: “It is common for us to explore multiple locations simultaneously and adjust based on our operational needs. While we have decided not to pursue the site in Churchill, PA, we are still committed to being a good neighbor, corporate citizen and community partner.”
Amazon also said that it employs over 4,000 people in the area and claims to have committed over $2 billion “in economic growth, infrastructure and employee compensation in the past decade” in the past decade. Supporters of the project, which included Fitzgerald, State Sen. Jay Costa and Congressman Mike Doyle, touted economic benefits to the community, tax revenue and jobs, between 1,000 and 1,500 of them. Based on the development’s projected value, Hillwood predicted that new annual tax revenue would be around $11.7 million.
Walking away from the former Westinghouse site
The Churchill proposal was billed as an estimated $300 million investment to build a 2.9-million-square-foot warehouse, with 1,794 parking spaces on the site of the former George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park that has been vacant for over 20 years.
Developer Hillwood and Amazon got an approval for the conditional-use application last December. Churchill Future, a group of residents who oppose the development, filed an appeal in the Court of Common Pleas in January challenging the 5-2 vote of Churchill borough council.
“I am disappointed for the kids coming out of the Woodland Hills School District who would have great opportunities for jobs in an area that hasn’t had a lot of development,” Fitzgerald said in an interview Friday. “They could use some job opportunities for some of the young people. I am disappointed that a small group of people just hurt their opportunity. They took it away from them. It’s been 20 years that this site has been sitting vacant and hopefully it does not sit vacant for another 20 years.”
Fitzgerald also said that it may be very difficult for anyone to want to spend a lot of time and effort to develop the site after witnessing Churchill Future’s impact. “These folks might have succeeded in killing off development in Churchill.”
Alex Graziani, Churchill’s borough manager, wrote in a Friday email to PublicSource that the borough “has not been apprised of any change in the status of the proposed Distribution Center development from the applicant, Churchill Creek Project.” He brought up the appeal that was filed to challenge the conditional use approval vote from December. “Should the status of that proceeding change, the Borough will be prepared to comment but until such a change occurs, the Borough is unable to comment further at this time,” he wrote.
Churchill Future’s opposition
Residents opposing the development said that the application did not meet the requirements of the zoning code and that the proximity of the Amazon warehouse to homes would hurt the health of the residents, decrease property values and endanger kids living in the area. They were concerned that heavy traffic, which would include tractor-trailers flowing into the facility around the clock, would further pollute the area already located close to sources of industrial pollution.
Cathy Bordner, a member of Churchill Future, said she was astounded by the news. Many residents who have been working to oppose this development have been texting and emailing after they heard about Amazon pulling it. She said people “are very relieved and they are just so elated.” Sandy Fox, another member of Churchill Future said before this news she started considering where else she could live.
Kate Carrigan Hill, a Churchill Future member who lives on Beulah Road where the Amazon warehouse was proposed, wonders what made the difference in Amazon calling off its plans but regardless recognizes that what comes of this land will remain a concern for her and the community.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know whatever happened…” she said. “But we have to stay together because at this point we need to have our council work for us.”
Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center, said one can never tell what tipped the scale for Amazon. But he sees it as a sign that community organizing works.
He said that this is at least the fourth Amazon massive warehouse plan he knows of that has been pulled back. The others include Grand Island, New York, in the summer of 2020; the Oceanside City case in California where the council rejected an Amazon warehouse last summer; and there was a case in San Diego where Amazon withdrew plans after officials wanted to improve worker conditions and pay.
Update (3/21/2022): This story was updated to include comment from Churchill’s borough manager.
Mila Sanina is an independent journalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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