The Churchill Borough Council gave its blessing to a controversial plan from Hillwood Development to build a sprawling Amazon distribution center at the site of what used to be the George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park. 

Five members of the council voted in favor of the proposal and two, Norma Greco and Adam McDowell, voted against it.

A group of residents opposing the Amazon development said they would appeal the council’s decision in court. 

The distribution center — which Amazon calls “a robotics sortable fulfillment center” — would be a 2.9-million-square-foot warehouse, with 1,794 parking spaces. It’s an estimated $300 million investment, the largest development in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh in recent memory. The site has been vacant for over 20 years. 

During a council meeting Tuesday night hosted on Zoom, before the council’s vote, dozens of residents spoke in opposition to the Hillwood proposal and only one spoke in support. Almost 300 people joined the virtual meeting.

Churchill Borough Council members voted on the Amazon proposal after more than two hours of public comment. (Screenshot)

A few members of the seven-member council spoke before the roll call. McDowell stated that his concerns have been around the air quality and he does not believe that the applicant has put in an adequate effort to meet the criteria for the conditional use. Greco agreed with McDowell. Those who voted in support of Hillwood’s application said that within the framework of the law, the applicant has met the criteria but they have been frustrated by the “thresholds” set by the law. The approval comes with a number of conditions to mitigate the impact of the project.

One council member, Kevin Collins, noted the $15 to $20 million cost to clean up the site that the borough would not bear under this proposal and the tax revenue that the development would bring. “Churchill borough needs commercial tax revenue… there is a guarantee of a minimum property tax revenue of $2.4 million per year for 10 years,” he said.

The vote, which approved the conditional-use application by Hillwood Development, follows an extended public hearing process that stretched over 14 virtual meetings and concluded on Oct. 25. The borough council amended the zoning ordinance to allow for the warehouse use in fall of 2020. The next step is a separate land development approval process with the planning commission and council.

Immediately after the council meeting, a group of residents representing opposition group Churchill Future spoke during a press conference denouncing the council’s vote. The speakers expressed disappointment, sadness, a sense of “betrayal” and “disgust” over the decision by the council, which they said “caved to the greed” of Amazon against the interests of Churchill residents.

“We are going to take it to the appellate courts. We need funding to continue fighting this. We cannot let Amazon take over our town,” said resident Kate Carrigan Hill, who lives right across the street from the project site. 

Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly issued a statement thanking the borough council: “We appreciate the Churchill Borough Council voting to allow this project to move forward and we’re committed to being a good partner in the community. While additional steps remain, we’re looking forward to creating at least 1,000 family sustaining jobs with good benefits and flexible hours, and to working with local schools, residents, and community groups to make a lasting and positive impact in Churchill and the entire region.”

The development has garnered significant opposition from some residents of Churchill, a borough of about 3,000 people. They formed a grassroots group called Churchill Future, hired a lawyer and have been doing research, fundraising and raising awareness about the project leading up to the council vote. The members of Churchill Future believe that an Amazon warehouse of the size proposed by Hillwood does not belong in a residential area and does not meet the criteria set by the zoning ordinance. 

Supporters of the project tout economic benefits to the community, tax revenue and jobs, between 1,000 and 1,500 of them, according to an economic study. The 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 property’s assessed value and whether the assessment is appealed.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald thanked Churchill Borough Council in a statement, touting the benefits of the project. “This is going to be a substantial development, not just for Churchill, but also for the residents in all of our eastern suburbs. It’s particularly exciting for these communities that haven’t seen as much growth as other areas of our county.

“This site has sat vacant for two decades but is now being brought back with potentially thousands of jobs, particularly for Woodland Hills students, allowing residents throughout those communities the benefit of economic growth,” Fitzgerald said in the statement. 

Those opposing the development worry that the proximity of the Amazon warehouse to residents’ homes would hurt the health of the residents, decrease home property values and endanger kids living in the area. They are 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. 

The Amazon site would be equivalent to 43 football fields and in close proximity to two schools. The members of Churchill Future are concerned that the development will destroy the existing ecosystem, kill 1,400 mature trees and create stormwater runoff issues. They also say that the construction may compromise the site spread across an abandoned coal mine and disrupt the land holding Parkway East. During the public hearings, some residents pointed out that the Amazon site would be adjacent to the property that holds the hot cell facility and the radioactive waste stored there.

To demonstrate that the development meets the requirements of the zoning law, Hillwood commissioned impact studies on traffic, pollution, noise, light and stormwater from Langan Engineering (Hillwood’s engineers) and Gateway Engineers (the borough’s engineers). 

Amazon has been expanding its footprint in Allegheny County. 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.

The facility in Churchill would be a distribution center feeding “last-mile” facilities in North Versailles and Lawrenceville.

Mila Sanina is a reporter in Pittsburgh and the former executive director of PublicSource. She can be reached at mila.sanina@gmail.com.

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Mila Sanina is the executive director of PublicSource. Previously, she was the deputy managing editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where she led innovation in storytelling and integration of print and...