Is the project reasonable for the location?

Developers are known to squeeze everyone, architects, contractors, government officials, engineers.  The two most obvious ways are to withhold and delay payments, and to threaten legal action.

Developers change communities. Sometimes for the good and frequently for the worse.  They are charming, bright, and knowledgeable. They follow the path of least resistance.  And Churchill borough has the least resistance.  This is typical for smaller boroughs with limited populations and dependent on volunteers for most of the municipal jobs.

Churchill has property and loose rules, so it is not surprising that Hillwood would try to exploit this to their advantage.  A small community of just 1500 residences and just 3000 residents must look like easy pickings to a professional and well-financed developer like Hillwood.

In every large development, a certain percentage of residents get displaced and the community changes. Will it overall benefit, or will it only benefit the developer?

Every developer looks at the property and gives it negative descriptions; blighted, slum, contaminated, antiquated, and claims it is not providing any taxes to the locality: Standard operating procedures.

We do not want to downplay the costs, risks, and liabilities for a developer, but the location determines if a project is worth the development.

There is a well-justified skepticism of major developers who invest the absolute minimum to complete the project to the detriment of the surrounding community.

There exist popular PPP, public-private partnerships, that presuppose public benefits, such as plazas, parks, green roofs.  However they are awarded, these projects are always clearly one-sided against the public.

Developers buy land chap, then get it rezoned, then regrade it to match their project.  The megaprojects look to suburban areas, as they are less risky in terms of politics in the approval process. Interest groups are weaker, those affected are far apart, and feel unaffected.  They have smaller, often voluntary, staffs, and less capacity to evaluate the development.

Hillwood has a complete team behind it.  That includes specialists in each area; Architect, geotechnical engineers, structural engineers, electrical and plumbing engineers, and of course lawyers specializing in land use and ordnances. These are important to lobby officials, and in modifying conditions for the developer, such as restrictions, easements, and zoning.

Developers are entrepreneurs.  They must pursue their own interest, often at the expense of others, and drive hard bargains.  They do not need to be liked, it is of little benefit.

Let’s look at the character and context of the neighborhood in light of a given proposal, not just the current Hillwood proposal.

For every project, and prior to spending lots of money, any given developer will have the architect design the exterior shell of the building, then illustrate the basic idea.  Then he will produce a detailed rendering and model that will look real, from the existing skyline to the people and cars and trees around it.

They design the skin first so that they have time to build support and have all the approvals passed before investing additional money.  They want to create a positive emotional response, to create excitement about the project.

The advantage is to sell the project by highlighting the overall image and building confidence in the benefit of the project to the community.  Sometimes, especially on large and complex projects, they even have dedicated websites with further illustrations and perspectives detailing specifics.

Nothing is ever left to chance by professional developers.  Every project is carefully designed and managed from day one.  Where is the proportional in-scale model of the completed project produced by the architect for this Hillwood proposal?  There is a 3D model overlaid on the property, but it has been withheld from anyone at Churchill.  Where are the architectural renderings of all the elevations and perspectives?

That is the standard operating procedure for any large real estate project; condos, malls, and distribution centers.  Where are the scale models and aerial views?

That is what Hillwood should have provided Churchill at the actual beginning of the proposal, instead of deliberately being vague and exaggerating every aspect of their project.  This totally misled everyone involved.

Council, the elected politicians of Churchill, should not promote or support any proposal until the borough can consult with the residents.  This was not done.  It went directly to the zoning commission.  The next step should have been to seek input from the neighborhood.  That is the normal and expected procedure.  The larger the project the longer it takes.  This Hillwood proposal is being rushed through in an unreasonable time frame to minimize any objections.

Just look at how many Churchill residents have come out opposed just within the last month.

Real estate development is a game of large numbers and timing plays a huge role in profitability.  Developers make money creating value, but at what costs to others.

Not all projects go ahead.

Hillwood is a developer who minimized their upfront investment and is prepared to move on if this project does not go through.  There is no guaranteed on any given project, which is why they have so many options going on simultaneously.  That is also why every project, get the concept sketches done first and then test the variables such as building heights, parking, traffic flow, etc.  This is done after taking an option to buy.  They still need to study city planning, zoning, and other development regulations.

Municipalities can grant exceptions, and they can take away these exemptions, especially when they were obtained with misleading information.

Hillwood was careful never to publicly state that this project was for Amazon, but then it slipped out in the last PowerPoint to the planning commission meeting.  That is important because they are not building on spec, but are building according to well-defined specifications and drawings supplied by Amazon.

We have been able to identify 3 separate Amazon facilities being built with the  630,000 square foot foundation, and 4 or 5 distribution centers with multiple levels (varies from 23 to 30-foot heights per level).  So this building represents what Amazon wants to see before it engages in a lease.

The concern is that normally a developer wants to avoid being dictatorial and shoving something that they want down the throat of the city.  The best is to have a dialog with the community and to listen to what they want, and then adapt to this local support.  This is normal for local developers since they will become our neighbors.  That is not the case with Hillwood who just wants to build, lease out, and then move on.

So what is the best use for the community with maximum tax revenue?

The best developers, like Oxford here in Pittsburgh, really do care about the place, the community, and creating a lasting legacy.  They have a vested interest.

We must avoid the developers that are mere speculators who are only interested in what they see as a process for outsized or quick profits, and especially not the fly by nights or inexperienced ones who cut every possible corner.

We must only deal with developers who have the means to complete the project as agreed upon without cutting the corners that negatively cost everyone down the road.  And they usually do not add anything meaningful to the property or for the community.

Any kind of distribution center is not appropriate for Churchill Borough.  We do not have the required infrastructure.

We do not need a developer who thinks solely in terms of the highest and best use for the land and not the highest and best use as a contribution to the larger neighborhood and community.

Hillwood is not building any goodwill around this project.  They are not interested in anything outside of maximizing the square footage they can use on the property.  They are forcing a building onto a property that can only be supported by leveling the hill and using fill with very high retaining walls to supply the additional square footage needed for roads and parking,   just make it somewhat acceptable to codes.

Hillwood and its distribution centers are the wrong kinds of developers for this property.  Normally real estate development is an intensely local business, and good developers work with the community.  Hillwood is not.

We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the use-value (that is where I walk my dog) from the exchange value (best use for the community).  Meaning we must avoid any distraction that obscures the bigger more important concerns.

We must communicate with a rational voice and present a sound and well-articulated argument and not a laundry list of objections or details on what we feel about the property.  Best use is up to the developer with agreement from the community and that is profitable relative to the risk.

What we can do is minimize the risk by doing some of the homework that has not historically been done in the borough relative to this property.  While developers must always keep an eye on costs and returns, it is also in their best interest to work with rather than against the neighborhood.

1—better define a comprehensive plan zoning for the site.  The objective for the borough’s land use and development.  Define what can and cannot be done on the property.  Council was correct in originally banning the distribution center.

Developers will take a broad interpretation of codes and restrictions so if they are important to the borough, be precise.

This will be important if we are to understand how the proposals stack up against the requirements of the borough.

2—how does it comply with city plans, codes, and standards?  Determine what the developer can do on the site “as of right”.

3—Image how a completed project will influence the neighborhood and community in the long term.

4—list the primary concerns of all residents, rank in importance, and decide which are negotiable with the developer and which are deal killers.

Do not forget that developers have an absolute advantage over community members with respect to knowledge and resources.  So community leaders do not have the capacity to match wits with developers, especially on big and complicated projects.

Are our engineers and legal contractors up to the task of dealing with behemoths such as Hillwood?  Do we need additional legal advice?

Consequently, the Churchill borough council must reject the Hillwood proposal and better define the rules so that they cannot be so flagrantly abused in the future.  And must encourage local developers to consider how to maximize use and tax revenue with minimum supplementary expenses.

Churchill Borough needs to do some homework and invest some time and resources if we really want to maximize the real potential value to the borough with this property development.

1—are all the buildings beyond refurbishment on just the 1 or 2 most obvious?  Too many vague and repeated opinions need to be verified with real-world cost estimates.

2—what is the cost to rehab each building?  Get real contractor estimates.  We cannot just depend on what any given developer says.

3—what is the water, sewer, and electrical now, and is it adequate for the infrastructure?

4—can the property be developed with an adequate financial return, using the existing topography.

What is the best kind of development for the Churchill land?  Retail, corporate, mixed business/residential, condos or apartments?

We need a new vision for that property, and we need to bring in local developers who are interested in working with the community to minimize the investment needed and still maximize the tax base, without adding additional long-term costs to the borough.

Let’s come up with some general ideas, realistic ideas, and have all the residents’ voice opinions and vote.

Can we not come up with a development that minimizes the risk to the developer and assures him of a reasonable profit?

How can we estimate the true value of the property for the owner and still complement the needs of the surrounding community?

The council must encourage investment in ways that are in concert with the plans and desires of the residents.

Murray Bilby
2424 Churchill Road