There was a time when a Native American trail crossed this piece of land. Then in the 18th century, European settlers repurposed it as a trade route to bring furs across Pennsylvania. They called it the Raystown Path. It ran from Carlisle and ended in Lawrenceville. Many years passed and, in the late 1950s, it became the George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park that once employed 1,900 people. For over 20 years, the property in Churchill Borough has been largely vacant. There was a film studio there in recent years but not anymore. And now Amazon is eyeing 57 acres of that land to be developed as the site of a giant distribution facility.
The proposed development would be located at 1310 Beulah Road. It’s a private property owned by Churchill Crossings Partners LP and assessed at $913,500. Texas-based Hillwood Development is proposing to develop the site for Amazon. The project is estimated to be a $300 million investment.
When your neighborhood becomes part of the Amazon strategy, the dynamic of who holds power, who gains and who loses is complicated. And in Churchill, the debates about economic development, community safety, environment and opportunities for future generations are playing out with a larger debate around Amazon, projected soon to become the biggest employer in America. These Amazon development projects are happening all over the country. In the Rust Belt, the behemoth has applied its formula to turn abandoned sites into fulfillment centers in cities like Akron, Cleveland and Detroit. It’s a story about power, about capital, land and labor and the fundamental tension between property rights and community input.
Right now, the fate of the development proposal is in the hands of the seven-member Churchill Borough Council. The council is expected to vote soon on whether to approve a conditional use application for the project. If the application moves forward, the next step is a separate land development approval process with the planning commission and Churchill Borough council.
If approved, the 2.9-million-square-foot warehouse that Amazon calls a “robotics sortable fulfillment center,” with 1,794 parking spaces and four and a half stories, would be the largest development in the east suburbs of Pittsburgh in recent memory. It’s what a lot of officials call a “once-in-a-generation” kind of thing. Amazon promises to remediate the site from asbestos, PCBs, lead and mold, demolish old buildings on the property and bring local jobs to the area. The company has also paid for impact studies to demonstrate compliance with requirements and the impact of the proposed development on traffic, noise, air quality, light and stormwater.
Since July 19, the borough council held 14 virtual meetings for the public hearing — about 57 hours’ worth — to hear residents’ views. Oct. 25 was the last day of the public hearing. Council has up to 45 days from the end of the hearing, once the parties submit their final briefs and the court reporter completes the transcript, to vote on the application. The burden has been on the applicant, Hillwood, to establish that Hillwood meets the criteria under Churchill Borough’s zoning code to obtain a permit for the proposed development.
Churchill Borough Manager Alex Graziani said he’s been in community development work for almost 30 years and has not seen a process quite like this. “I’ve never had a situation where this kind of effort is being poured into a development,” he said. “But it’s appropriate because it’s a $300 million proposal and it deserves everybody’s attention.”
‘Amazonhill’: Pros and cons
Supporters of the project tout economic benefits to the community, tax revenue and jobs, between 1,000 and 1,500 of them. The economic study from Hillwood also estimates more than 2,000 construction-related jobs. Based on the development’s projected value, Hillwood predicts that new annual tax revenue would be around $11.7 million. Taxes owed would depend on the assessed value and whether the assessment is appealed.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Jay Costa and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wrote letters in support of the project. Amie Downs, the spokesperson for Fitzgerald, told PublicSource that the county executive remains supportive of the project and “focused on the opportunities that this will create for Woodland Hills students.”
But Cynthia Underwood, who lives on Graham Boulevard in Churchill, believes other factors should be taken into consideration. Underwood, native of Rankin, raised her two daughters in Churchill, a community where, as a single mom, she felt safe. Churchill was a community she could enjoy. “It was a big thing for me,” she said.
“This is supposed to be a residential community. I think that type of plant needs to be in the industrial park, you know, where they’re used to that kind of activity, and it’s expected.”
Cathy Bordner, a Churchill resident who lives on Hampstead Drive, 800 feet from the site, said those who are supporting the development are misguided. Bordner wants to see a cost-benefit analysis. The borough will have to pay for safety and infrastructure maintenance and spend borough resources and staff time to meet demands associated with the development. And she thinks property values of Churchill homes are likely to decrease if the conditional use application is approved. “In 10 years, Churchill will turn into a depressed area,” she said.
Gary Frederick, Hillwood’s Executive vice president, told PublicSource that according to a report from a Pennsylvania licensed professional real estate appraiser, “residential home values in neighborhoods near [six] other distribution center developments in Pennsylvania have appreciated more quickly than average in those counties.” Hillwood submitted that report to Churchill’s planning commission, which voted in favor of the proposal.
Property owner NAI Pittsburgh/Churchill Crossings did not respond to requests for comment on the development.
Another Churchill resident Ralph Waller said if the facility is built, he believes many residents would leave. “My wife and I have already talked about it. We wouldn’t want to live in ‘Amazonhill.’ Would you?”
Waller is worried about pollution, noise and traffic. According to the proposal, large trucks would be making more than 750 trips in and out of the distribution center every day. Waller would not want any residential community, not just Churchill, “to have this polluter.”
“Amazon 18-wheelers in Churchill would be like U.S. Steel on wheels,” he said.
But Eric Grotzinger, a resident who has lived in Churchill for 32 years and gave public comment in support of the development, sees a huge opportunity.
He said the borough, the county and school district will benefit financially. No other developer is interested in the property and, in its current state, the site poses environmental problems and steep demolition costs. Grotzinger, biochemist by training and retired Carnegie Mellon University professor, trusts the process and believes that Hillwood and Amazon have been acting in good faith. They hired professional engineers to conduct the studies and incorporated resident feedback into their plan, he said. Grotzinger points out that aside from tax revenue, the Woodland Hills School District has a lot to gain. If hired by Amazon after graduation, students could also take advantage of a tuition reimbursement program.
And as far as Amazon, “there’s been a lot of negative criticism about them, but I think as a company, they’re hearing that and they’re going to make changes,” Grotzinger said.
In a statement to PublicSource, Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly wrote: “Allegheny County is [a] great place to live and work and Amazon is proud of our growing footprint in the region. We’re committed to being a good neighbor, corporate citizen, and community partner. The pending new fulfillment center in Churchill will improve efficiency and service for customers in the region, create at least 1,000 new good local jobs (average wage $18 per hour, comprehensive benefits, 401(K) with employer match, full tuition and job training assistance, and paid leave), and allow us to expand local giving and volunteer opportunities.”
Yet, Churchill resident Sandy Fox is not convinced. The Amazon site with the warehouse, parking and other buildings would be equivalent to 43 football fields and in close proximity to two schools and many homes. Fox said that it does not belong in Churchill. It would harm safety and residents’ health; it would kill 1,400 mature trees and create stormwater runoff issues, she said, no matter the mitigation efforts.
Bordner, Fox and other members of Churchill Future, a grassroots group of about 120 residents who oppose the development, don’t want Amazon as their neighbor. The group has been trying all sorts of things to stop it: door-to-door canvassing, lawn signs, research to bolster their efforts, videos with resident interviews, a change.org petition, driving up turnout and participation in the public hearing and even a campaign to put forward three write-in candidates for the borough council.
The details on write-in votes in municipal elections are still pending, according to Allegheny County. Based on preliminary count, out of 3,885 votes, 1,071 write-in votes have been reported in one race in the Churchill Borough Council race and 491 write-in votes have been cast in the other race with Matthew Castiglia dominating the race with 599 votes.
According to Churchill Future, more than 400 homes would be located within 1,000 feet from the property line of the site.
To mitigate potential impact, Hillwood on behalf of Amazon agreed to replant the trees, reduce the size of the building by 20%, lower the height of the light posts, and commissioned traffic, light, sound, air quality and stormwater studies. The studies suggest a number of mitigation efforts but overall project minimal impact of the development on the borough. Residents who oppose the facility do not trust the studies. These studies, they say, are flawed because of data used. For example, they cite incomplete traffic estimates, outdated rainfall data and modeling used for pollution that doesn’t account for high levels of industrial and traffic pollution already in the area. The impact on Parkway East is not part of the studies either.
The developer challenged residents’ expertise, saying they do not have proper qualifications to comment on the validity of the studies. Plus, the studies are subject to approval by Churchill, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and its engineers.
Additionally, the property is spread across an abandoned coal mine, and the Hillwood proposal talks about lowering the land surface, possibly below the soil level, which worries some residents. Blasting during construction may cause mine subsidence and disrupt the land holding Parkway East. Ike Ezekoye, a resident who worked for Westinghouse for 45 years in nuclear power plant design and development, specifically pointed out that the Amazon site would be adjacent to the property that holds the hot cell facility and the radioactive waste stored there. Ezekoye is concerned about how blasting and shock waves from it may disrupt the integrity of soil and of the hot cell facility. When asked about the hot cell, Hillwood told PublicSource that “Westinghouse’s operations are not located on this property, they are located on the adjacent parcel and would not be affected by this project.”
Recently, the members of Churchill Future met with the Woodland Hills school board and requested a meeting with the county executive. Fitzgerald turned them down, saying through his assistant that the development and Churchill Future’s opposition to it is a municipality issue.
The school board, composed of nine members none of whom live in Churchill, has met with representatives of Churchill Future and talked with Hillwood and Amazon. Recently, school board president Jaime Glasser, whose brother works for Amazon, shared remarks on behalf of the board in support of the project. She recognized the concerns over the impact of the project “in terms of traffic and noise, light, and emissions” and said she hopes that those could be mitigated. But she emphasized that the district has a lot to gain from the project, especially because neither Hillwood nor Amazon asked the board for any relief from taxes.
“My colleagues and I also have an obligation to consider the fiscal reality that faces our district… our Board recognizes the heavy tax burden on our residents,” she said. “This project has the best chance of any that I have seen or that is likely to come to lighten that burden. The revenue generated by this project could constitute a meaningful portion of the district budget.”
Living ‘in the eye of the beast’
Kate Carrigan Hill, another member of Churchill Future, would live right across the street from the site. Her home of five years is located on Beulah Road, an already busy street. Her husband, Jack, said their house would be “right in the eye of the beast.”
The Hills were completely unaware of the Hillwood proposal until one day in April, a neighbor knocked on the door and told them about it. Now Carrigan Hill is an active — and “proud,” as she emphasizes — member of Churchill Future.
Organizing hasn’t been easy during the pandemic, but the group has been creative. They held a bake sale and host a GoFundMe page to cover legal expenses. They organized five protests at the borough building, including one before the last public hearing. But Carrigan Hill is disappointed that the public hearings were held virtually. “If you are going to destroy my life, my home, then do it to my face,” she said.
Carrigan Hill credits her neighbor Murray Bilby for bringing them all together and finding a lawyer to represent Churchill Future. Bilby established the churchillfuture.com website and, on his own dime, created lawn signs that read, “Petition NO to Amazon Distribution Warehouse.”
Anthony Wilson has been a resident of Churchill Borough for more than 20 years. His home, where Wilson lives with his wife and three sons, is located on Graham Boulevard, the proposed route for the vehicles to and from the facility. He worries about heavy traffic presenting “a respiratory assault” and what it would mean to the safety of the children, including his own, attending school nearby.
“This, to me, is a gross abuse of this community,” Wilson said.
In testimony to the borough council in August, Dr. Deborah Gentile, the medical director of Community Partners in Asthma Care, cited the study she led on asthma rates among kids living near polluted areas; 1,200 kids participated, 600 were from the Woodland Hills School District. The kids in the study were exposed to 70% more air pollution than the threshold set by the World Health Organization and 40% more than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threshold. In a two-mile radius of the proposed Amazon site, respiratory hazard levels are already high based on the Environmental Justice screen Gentile presented.
It’s bigger than Churchill
Some residents told PublicSource this story is not just about Churchill. They see it as setting a precedent. If the borough council votes in favor of the proposal, Amazon will be even more emboldened, they say, to throw their weight around small communities.
They also cite macroeconomic and climate change concerns that go way beyond Churchill’s zoning ordinance. During the hearing, opponents have been bringing up Amazon’s labor practices, worker turnover as high as 150%, predatory pricing, its union-busting track record and aggressive expansion driven solely by efficiency.
The supporters focus on tax revenue that the project will bring, jobs, benefits to the school district and the fact that there is no other proposal competing for the site.
The pandemic has been good for Amazon as people have been staying home and shopping online more.
To continue expanding rapidly and keep up delivery speeds, Amazon has to have warehouses close to its most frequent customers, affluent neighborhoods where most of Amazon Prime households live, said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First. According to the 2019 data, the latest estimate available, more than 90,000 households in Allegheny County have subscriptions to Amazon Prime. And that’s before the pandemic.
In addition to proximity to Amazon Prime customers, another factor Amazon considers is proximity to highways, which makes Churchill and its access to I-376 a golden opportunity.
Labor is also an important consideration. Costa said in an Aug. 13 radio interview that Woodland Hills is going to serve as “a feeder system so to speak” for Amazon. Amazon is promising to attract workers from surrounding communities like Wilkins, Wilkinsburg, Forest Hills, Rankin and Turtle Creek.
But Ralph Waller, resident of Churchill, remains skeptical.
“Don’t you hope our officials would have better aspirations for our children than working for Amazon after they graduate from high school?”
Opponents, including Waller, also believe one of the key benefits of this warehouse — the jobs — will go away in the future with automation and robotics taking over. Amazon does use robots but maintains that it uses them for efficiency and safety and has not limited hiring.
In the meantime, Amazon’s footprint keeps expanding.
Just in October, Amazon bought the Eastland Mall site in North Versailles. The company has been pursuing a facility in Lawrenceville, in a former Sears outlet warehouse on 51st Street, and a sortation center in Findlay Township, west of Pittsburgh. It already has a massive distribution center in Findlay, which opened in fall 2020.
The facility in Churchill would be a distribution center feeding “last-mile” facilities in North Versailles and Lawrenceville.
Given the pushback and Amazon’s reputation as an employer, LeRoy said he thinks Amazon is going to be forced to adapt its business tactics. Why do you need these massive facilities, especially in residential neighborhoods? LeRoy asks. “People are starting to see Amazon as a neighborhood bully, as an air quality bully, as a school neighbor bully, as a bully throwing its weight around on the local borough councils.”
Graziani, the borough manager, said he believes the council is not going to be bullied. The council members are knowledgeable and experienced, he said; they will be able to hold their own and vote based on what they individually think is right for the borough.
“[This hearing is] meant to help them answer big questions: Is the proposed development compatible or is it too big? Can it get there? Are the harms mitigated or are they insurmountable? And that's what we're going to see.”
Now, the clock is ticking. It’s possible that no matter how the council votes, they may face a legal battle from either side or even both.
Some people in the community believe the Amazon distribution center in Churchill is a foregone conclusion. But when Bordner, the resident leading Churchill Future’s steering committee, is asked why she keeps fighting against what seems like a done deal, she doesn’t skip a beat.
“I think fighting for this borough is worth it. We lived here for about two years, but it’s the loveliest place we have ever lived and I do not want to see it destroyed.”
Mila Sanina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Linden Markley.
A timeline of how the Amazon warehouse proposal in Churchill came to be
Hillwood Development has been working with the Churchill Borough Council since 2019 on a potential use of the former Westinghouse site as “a logistics facility.”
- August 2019: The borough council voted in favor of amending the zoning ordinance to allow “warehouse distribution center use.”
- December 2020: Churchill Creek Project, LLC, filed an application for conditional use and land development approval, along with related plans and studies, seeking to redevelop the vacant George Westinghouse Technology and Research Park into an e-commerce distribution and logistics facility for use and occupancy by Amazon.
- July 19, 2021: Start of the public hearing hosted by borough council regarding the conditional use application.
- Oct. 25, 2021: End of the public hearing. Borough code dictates that at the end of the conditional use hearing, the involved parties are invited to submit final briefs and the hearing transcript is completed. Council has up to 45 days to decide on the application. Unless additional extensions are approved, the council is expected to vote on the conditional use application in December.
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