Open letter to Churchill Borough Residents
Regarding the Churchill Creek Project Land Development
ADDENDUM: March 12, 2021
Hillwood has returned to its original plan and documents submitted to the borough last spring with a 630,000 sf footprint, but it still exactly the same in all other aspects. So rather than the entire Monroeville mall, it drops the movie theater. Or to have another comparison, it is still larger than the entire Parkway East in Wilkins, and a single building higher than all those separated buildings. You will find other bits of useful information in the supplemental articles being published on this site. You will find the latest Hillwood PowerPoint and comments outlining some of the misleading information being presented to the public. You can explore it in detail to verify for yourself the misinformation being disseminated about this project. The consequences will be left to you and the borough long after Hillwood sells the property and moves on.
January 27, 2021
By Murray Bilby
2424 Churchill Road
First, I recommend that all residents go to the borough web site and become familiar with all the useful information available. This is your community, you decided to invest a substantial sum in purchasing and maintaining your residence. If you want to keep the ambiance that first brought you here, you must take action. Read about what is going on in the community or go to the municipal building meetings. Much of the support material related to what follows can be found there. But you need to take the initiative to read and understand it.
Photos have been reduced to minimize the length of this document. Click on any photo or illustration to expand for easier viewing. Expand by putting the cursor in the lower right corner to drag an arrow for expanding – if viewed in a Word document.
You, as a resident of Churchill Borough, should decide what is most important to you and your family. Then develop expertise on those one or two issues and convey your thoughts to the Planning Commission and Borough Council members. Keep Mayor Paul G. Gamrat and Borough Manager Alex Graziani, Borough Manager informed. Email addresses can be found on the borough site: http://www.churchillborough.com/.
There is also a tab above for all of the contact information you will need.
There is no single source of all the information, so there will certainly be areas yet to discuss and consider. The more involved I became in this project, and the more I learned, the initial ideas and assumptions had to be modified as the details became clearer. Do not allow any single statement or fact to distract you from observing the big picture.
This project is moving at a high velocity so time is short in order to act. This proposal almost makes the fracking proposal seem like a good deal.
On the Borough’s home page, you’ll find easy-to-understand links to borough meeting notes. You also have the option to see a video of who is discussing what at borough meetings.
Second, this is an alert with questions on the project and how it is being ushered through the process with incomplete and misleading data.
Consequently, I hope that individuals will identify areas of personal interest and explore them in more depth.
Don’t try to imagine what is taking place. And don’t assume anything. Verify everything and get the facts.
Look at the Westinghouse hill from all angles – as it is today and as it will be if this project goes through. Consider old Beulah Road. Eliminate the trees that hide the buildings – they will be gone. Triple the height of the building. Picture it closer to within 100 feet of Beulah. Picture the 50-foot retaining wall. What do you see? Imagine yourself driving north on Beulah to get on the westbound ramp. Imagine coming off of 22 to the top of the hill, or the parkway west exit. Think about walking into your back yard at night and trying to see the stars.
At the end of this document, you will also find many links to outside sources relevant to distribution centers and their development with comments from local municipalities. You should compare those comments and complaints with the current situation.
DEVELOPING THE PROPERTY
I want to make it crystal clear, I am not against developing the property. I want to be sure that our leaders find the right development. I encourage everyone to go to the Borough website at http://www.churchillborough.com/ and read how 10% of residents who responded to the questionnaire sent out last year think. If you did not participate then, it’s a good time now to let your opinions be known.
This property is very, very valuable to major developers due to the location. We must not believe statements that Hillwood is the only one who can or will develop the property. Once it is known that the Churchill Council is supportive of development, then all the transportation companies, big box stores, and other development speculators will be ready to bid on the property. That could be beneficial to everyone.
This property is an especially valuable asset to the borough with all the green space that surrounds it. Currently, it absorbs significant amounts of stormwater, generates clean air due to the amount of vegetation, and adds the quiet rural feel of the community. Assets must not be squandered. They must be used to the benefit of the whole community.
It was zoned C 1 specifically for Westinghouse who committed – and followed through on that commitment – to use the site in a manner reflecting the community. Just because the site is still zoned C 1 (and it is the only C 1 zone) does not mean that any kind of business should be permitted. We do not need a meatpacking plant, fertilizer plant, or mega distribution plant. You can read on the borough web site the specific businesses anticipated as acceptable. Even if these firms meet the building and zoning requirements, it does not mean that any kind of business can just be established. It is also listed near the end.
So even though the whole property has the C 1 designation, it was never considered that the whole property would be converted into a paved commercial site. It was based on the complete drawing and sketches from Westinghouse at the time and included concepts for future expansion within the designated space. That is not what we are facing at this time.
Council has the responsibility to respect the will of the community and look out for its best interest. This is especially important because too many of the residents do not have the experience or time to be involved. Council has broad authority to make changes to the rules that govern our community. What they do can help the community or hurt the community.
Based on what I’ve read and seen, I believe the best use would be to zone all the current watershed and tree areas on the property as reserved and limit development to those areas already covered and disturbed. The planning commission can do this, and the council can formalize it. That is in the best interest of the Churchill Borough. But I am in no position to propose or support such a change in zoning.
WHERE DO I LIVE
I purchased my house at 2424 Churchill Road in 2008 and have lived full-time since 2010. I am now attached to the community and am not ready to just abandon it and move away. This is a great place to live, but the proposed project too radically changes the environment.
I have replaced and improved the landscape around the house. In addition, I cultivated the side lot, turning it from a forest of invasive plants to a broad selection of native western PA plants, and put in more than 50 new trees.
I like it here. I want to be sure that whatever is done does not diminish anyone’s benefits of living here.
Yes, outside the front of my house is Churchill Road and I see a steady stream of vehicles exiting the Parkway, heading back toward Beulah. Most cars do not stop at the sign but roll through. There is also the actual parkway noise of semis and cars accelerating downhill toward the 22 exit. It’s nothing compared to the traffic a distribution center of this size will produce.
We are residential. Houses actually have yards, giving each resident more privacy than much of the surrounding communities. Houses are well maintained. It is safe to go walking at night. There is very little crime. It is a positive place to raise a family.
When I go for my circle walk, starting down Holland, it changes. I only encounter traffic again when I enter out to Beulah for the return up the hill. The level of traffic today with the pandemic is tolerable for walks. Even so, the speed of traffic along Beulah is unnerving. Image Beulah in normal times and then double it.
By limiting business to the Pike and the area around Kuhn’s is just south of the Churchill line, the majority of the borough remains calm and peaceful.
That makes Churchill an oasis of clean air and breathing space between the higher density surrounding communities. Personally, I feel that is well worth paying a little extra for.
Even though the Westinghouse contribution to the borough expenses has disappeared, the extra costs associated with an active Westinghouse operation are also reduced. Other than delays in repaving some streets at the 10-year timetable council established, Churchill borough has been able to function quite well for 20 years on its current revenue. Even though additional revenue would be nice, we are not desperate, and must not act as if we were.
Hillwood Development, through a new subsidiary, has proposed development on the Westinghouse R&D site in our borough. That company is Churchill Creek Project, LLC (CCP). Consequently, any legal requirements or commitments from Hillwood will have no authority unless it is issued as Churchill Creek Project LLC (CCP).
Drawings can be viewed at the borough building. Here is an example of the foundation ground layout.
Gateway engineers have done a good job of analyzing the submitted plans, but that is a distraction from the fundamental premise of the application.
First, people are referring to this as an Amazon project. It is not. This is a Hillwood project. They have not mentioned Amazon as the client once in all their interactions with the council and the planning group. It may be true as Amazon rarely associates its name until a project is completed, but Hillwood works with several dozen mega-companies who rent the spaces that they develop. The ultimate client could be anyone.
If this is Amazon, it usually gives very specific requirements to the developer, like Hillwood or Prologis; these are exacting specifications. Why are these still being hidden from the borough?
The consequence is that we do not know what products will be handled. It could be books or cosmetics, but it could also be chemicals or truck parts.
The primary attraction to this proposal to date has been centered on the financial benefits to the borough and school district. Chasing those dollars as presented in the proposal has apparently influenced some of the decisions to date.
Secondarily, attention has been on details related to the drawing submitted, not to the finished project or its consequences.
What has been totally ignored is a visual understanding of the completed project. Hillwood has deliberately not supplied sketches or the artist drawings of the building. They could not have calculated the 3.6 million square feet in the proposal without designing the building first. Clearly, the ultimate tenant will make internal changes for their use, but the building itself has been designed. Otherwise, there is no way that they can make the foundation calculations for the detailed drawing submitted for Gateway to analyze. One must ask why.
My impression at this time from all that I have been able to gleam from documents is that the actual size of the building and the amount of soil displacement required would create a negative backlash to their plans. Otherwise, wouldn’t they be touting how that humungous box would be complementing the borough?
DOCUMENTS ARE AVAILABLE AT THE BOROUGH BUILDING
I personally inspected the drawing and documents in the municipal building. That is when the actual size of this project was revealed. Prior to that review, my understanding was a last-mile 2 story warehouse of about 300,000 feet square; not 3.6 million, and a 125-foot high multistory building.
No architectural or artist drawings to scale have been provided. Hillwood used its usual introduction PowerPoint to present their ideas and, later, engineered drawings related to the foundation rearrangement of the site surface were submitted. Nothing was said or submitted about the actual building itself. Remember, no plans as detailed as the stormwater drawings and foundation requirements are possible without drawings indicating, for example, the total weight of the building on the soil. Soil mechanic engineers require this data for their analysis, and yet it is missing.
What is also missing here is the additional infrastructure changes needed and to be paid for by the county and the state. Indirectly we, as taxpayers, will need to pay for these either in additional taxes or by having other projects postponed or dropped.
JUST HOW LARGE IS THIS BUILDING? 3 WAYS TO IMAGINE IT
1. Football Field
To better understand this proposal, let’s imagine the football field where the Steelers play. The main field is 300 feet long by 160 feet wide, roughly a 2 to 1 ratio if you add the end zones for a total of 360 feet long. That ratio is important because distribution centers also use the 2 to 1 ratio most of the time.
The proposed distribution center of 3.6 million square feet, has a building foundation of about 1300 feet long and 700 feet wide; with a footprint of 830,000 square feet.
The width of the Hillwood building is equivalent to almost 4 complete football fields, including the end zones. The depth is 2 complete football fields – can you imagine that size? If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for the first time, everyone is truly astonished at how long it is – at about 1100 feet, it is only 3 football fields long.
2. Aircraft Carrier
The width of the building is 4 times the width of a football field or two complete football fields deep. The aircraft carrier, on the wide upper deck, is about 250 feet, 2/3 the length of a single football field.
3. Compare to the Monroeville Mall Complex
Another way to view the final building footprint and size is to visualize the Monroeville Mall. Increase the height 3 fold, (the 125-foot height council voted to give to this proposal), lift it up, and put it down on the Westinghouse site.
The three photos below are to scale and can be seen in the borough building on the wall map which is where these photos were taken. Notice the almost total loss of green space.
HOW TALL IS TOO TALL?
This is clearly and unequivocally too large a project for the location. It fundamentally changes the property from one complementing the community to one that denigrates it.
Remember, the total paved area is far more than the 830,000 square foot foundation footprint when you include parking and roads. It doubles the area to be paved over.
THE ONLY C 1 ZONE IN CHURCHILL BOROUGH
The normal image of a distribution center is one thing. This is not that. It is far and away from an almost inconceivably large project and not at all what the borough would consider a C 1 business.
Another ignored fact is that Churchill is a residential neighborhood. Churchill is not an isolated rural distribution business park grouping this business apart from the rest of the community. Churchill is in the middle of several well-established residential communities. The negative consequences – for both Churchill and neighboring communities are – are too great.
The original C 1 zoning was given to a firm that respected and supported the community. It should not be allowed for a project that exceeds reasonableness, radically changes the borough, and negatively affects the whole area.
This project is perhaps the largest project of the type in the history of North America. It should not be in Churchill Borough.
If you can imagine the enormous size of the proposed building, then you understand why It is time to reject the whole project as submitted.
- Its scope is not appropriate for the location.
- Its vision is not in line with the long term plans for Churchill and surrounding communities.
- It desecrates what is a diminishing and rare resource of green space along the parkway.
- It requires an unprecedented amount of land movement on top of an abandoned coal mine, and unreasonable accommodations from the borough.
- It unnecessarily increases noise, air, and light pollution, with a reduction of land value as a result.
- It unnecessarily increases strain on both sewage and stormwater flooding, and creates increased traffic and wear and tear on borough infrastructure.
So the borough should vote to reject the proposal in totality and entertain later proposals that match existing paved areas on the site in height and general architecture.
If Hillwood can produce a business plan using the current footprint and building heights, then Churchill Borough should definitely be open to working out the implementation of that project. But the borough should also consider other proposals.
The Hillwood proposal should be immediately rejected with no further discussion.
ALTERNATIVE FOR HILLWOOD
A last-mile distribution center up to 250,000 sq. feet is appropriate for the site. The approximately 900,000 sq. feet cited for all of the Westinghouse buildings, (and it needs to be verified as accurate) is not the footprint but the totality of available space on all the floors, including the lower levels. The actual footprint is closer to 200,000 sq. ft.
This would be a more appropriate space to use and would require a minimum of soil disturbance and the resulting consequences. Yet, it would generate new revenue for the school district and the borough.
The Hillwood Development Company LLC is a business. Their objectives do not include the concerns of the local residents. Their objective is to get the project finished as fast as possible, and as cheaply as possible, to make as much money as possible. They want to utilize every possible square foot.
I am not opposed to updating the use of the property, but I feel the current proposal will radically and irreversibly change the character of the Churchill borough. Below are the updated comments I submitted to the council last month.
These are questions and situations that the council should seriously consider prior to acquiescing any of the petitioning developers to the borough. Understanding the deliberate ambiguity that developers use in all projects, especially large and complex ones will allow the council, planning, zoning, and all departments to make appropriate decisions in the best interest of the borough.
I reached out to two fellow residents who work with me. One was not aware of the Hillwood project, and the other had only heard that it would reduce taxes. Neither realized the scope of the project.
Hillwood has implemented enough projects to know exactly what questions will be raised and by whom, prior to the very first notification of their project.
By anticipating your concerns, they can frame the context of the objections to minimize their importance, and to give the impression of being “good people.” In their personal lives, they probably are, but in these projects, they will be predatory killers whose goal is to execute the project quickly and expeditiously. Then they move on to the next venture.
The polished presentation given to Churchill is the same refined presentation that has been used in previous projects. They know the hot buttons and how to deflect them so the majority of residents will accept them and the project at face value. Minimizing the realists and skeptics makes their job easier.
That is why the links at the end with comments from communities in similar situations offer a deeper perspective when evaluating the benefits of a distribution center.
Consequently, it is critical that the decision-makers for the community approach the project and what is presented with extra skepticism. Once built, there is no change: Fait accompli.
So I will indicate what I see at this time as examples of downplaying real concerns with optimistic and ambiguous statements made during the slide show presentation when the public first became aware of any details. That was October, although some members of the borough were aware of it earlier.
How they interact with and influence the real decision-makers will be presented in another letter. This one is based on influencing the community by educating on what is happening and what will happen if the project is enacted.
RULES TO ASSURE A PROJECT IS IMPLEMENTED AS DESIGNED
Keep the project secret except with those who may have vested interests in the implementation, until it is so far advanced that rejection is not a reasonable expectation.
Design the presentation to bring up all of the anticipated objections first, to minimize them, and offer what appear to be solutions
Throw in some “freebies”, just like selling Ginza knives, such as “planning” to support local charities and groups but make no firm commitments, letting the locals put their own value on them.
Maximize the promise of “good-paying jobs” for both construction jobs and the businesses renting space, without being specific about how this will be accomplished.
Maximize the tax benefits with exaggerated amounts, and bring those recipients into the project as supporters. Implicit is if not in my backyard then let’s do it.
Use the jobs and taxes to collect support from politicians who are always for these goals but in no way involved with any details.
Cherry-pick references and encourage decision-makers to contact their allies for glowing comments
Show illustrations of the current situation in a negative light, and compare to exaggerated sketches of what it will look like so that the contrast is maximized in favor of the project.
Exaggerate the amount of commitment already invested so that the tendency will only be to perhaps modify but not stop the project.
Exaggerate the difficulty of the project and the extra cost and effort the developer is prepared to invest for the community.
Downplay the infrastructure costs to the local county and state government to modify the infrastructure needed to support the proposal, and avoid any future maintenance discussions.
Always present the project as increasing property value.
Never make specific commitments, keep everything vague. Be prepared with false initial requirements that can be discarded as decoy indicators of true negotiation.
Do not reveal the ultimate requests until actually needed, begin with smaller ones, building acquiescence so the ultimate requirements seem natural to accept.
And it always helps to dangle some financial carrots to some peripheral groups to imply their support to the project.
Ignore the uncompensated public costs for noise, road wear, accidents, and harmful emissions.
Therefore, the borough council and committees should be attentive to potential distortions, omissions, misleading statements, and faulty assumptions from any developer.
Neutralize any strong legal defense for the municipality by giving token work to each of the firms in the area likely to be effective in defending the municipality so that they must decline to represent due to conflict of interest.
Hillwood has already done this, as the 3 firms Tamis has worked with have declined to give any legal advice due to conflict of interest in this situation, and 4th is not returning my calls.
WHY LOCAL COMMUNITIES LOSE
Now let’s clarify one point so that we understand why local communities rarely win when large developers like Hillwood initiate mega projects. Lack of knowledge, experience, and preparation makes it very difficult for local communities to resist the force. Volunteers are not professionals.
At the end are links to 5 developers where you can explore where their projects were actually placed.
These development companies, and through their subsidiaries and large clients such as Amazon, Target, Dollar General, FedEx, and others, have invested time and resources through in-depth specialized departments, and have a definitive plan, long before they ever approach a given jurisdiction. They have studied every detail of the project, noted every single thing that could derail it, and prepared a plan that essentially cannot be stopped. Local municipalities have very limited defenses against this juggernaut.
These are businesses that are only responsible to their company and its stockholders. You can be sure they intend to use every square foot of the property to further the business objectives. They will do what is required for the permits and no more. They have no obligation to preserve any of the existing grass or trees and will toss out bones like slot machines through back token wins in order to placate potential complaints.
That is the situation Churchill Borough now finds itself. Since the project team has already planned to isolate and negate anyone or anything that might seriously change the plan, local councils can usually do little more than try to modify minor details or the most onerous results.
One of the first changes to be made when a developer wants to modify given land use and needs to have zoning changes is to call the property antiquated and in need of change. The pressure is put on the zoning board to start making changes and modifying rules more in line with the ultimate objective of the developer. These boards strive to act in the best interest of the community but when the economic pressure is applied, and ideas are solicited, you can be sure the developer gets his point of view at the top of the list.
Passing the zoning changes for the Hillwood project was a fundamental relinquishing of negotiating strength. If it is not reversed, the developer now has the precedent for an unbelievably large distribution center radically different from anything yet developed. And an additional precedent has been established – the municipal rules related to the project can be changed in the future as well. But all that can still be negated at this time if the council decides to do so, as it should.
By learning from other locations, Churchill Council can still attach requirements to any proposal in line with the residential importance of the Churchill community, even if the majority of the Hillwood plan is still pushed through.
The risk to the community is that, once it is under construction, Churchill Borough or its residents will have zero influence on what the owners do. Even if they violate commitments, there is nothing that can really be done. It is critical that the process not be rushed until the Churchill Council can determine the requirements minimizing the degradation of any proposed project to the community. Make no mistake, the scope of this project will have a seriously negative effect on the Churchill Borough if the original proposal is not rejected and a better plan required.
PRECEDENT FOR ADDITIONAL C 1 AND C 2 DEVELOPER ZONING CHANGES
If this project is built, it will attract supporting or peripheral businesses who will also request changes to the zoning ordinance. Remember, the first four Churchill zoning ordinance objectives are:
- Preserve and improve the natural environment
- Increase property values and the economic base for the community
- Provide for safe adequate and attractive housing and to maintain the character and stability of the same
- Obviate losses from flooding
It could start with food trucks, possibly a gas station or a fast-food franchise, and all the other supporting businesses that 1,500 Amazon workers need. Read the ordnances from this link.
POTENTIAL UTILITY ADJUSTMENTS
Will the power supply on existing lines and towers be sufficient to supply requirements, or will a new right of ways be required to add electrical service to the property?
Will existing water and sewer lines be sufficient to support such a large scale project, or will there need to be a total replacement borough-wide? Churchill Borough already is replacing a pumping station in 2021 at a significant cost. How much more might the Hillwood project require the borough to pay for?
Is Hillwood searching for public financing from any other source for this development? Have they applied to anyone at the state or county level for cash injections or tax deferrals? These funds are paid through our taxes. Hillwood is refusing to confirm or deny if any other special financial incentives are being sought.
This proposal is touted as a major job creator, but it has several fallacies and exaggerations that need to be exposed.
Almost no large distribution center project has resulted in a new job increase by the 3rd year. None.
What they do is temporarily upset the employment base to fill a large number of positions as soon as possible. One study found that a one hour commute to an Amazon facility was not unusual. Since distribution centers are mostly built in rural areas, there is rarely a large supply of ready labor so commuting is the logical consequence.
If a local area has high unemployment, above 15%, it can have a positive effect by raising minimum wage jobs in service sectors to compete with the average $15/hr. the rate that Amazon currently pays to its full-time employees. Even at $15 an hour, it is still a struggle for a family to survive on that income.
Westinghouse had professionals and union workers generating good wages, many of whom could afford to live in Churchill. A distribution center is essentially minimum wage jobs where the workforce must commute from other communities, and who cannot afford to actually live in Churchill. Therefore they have no connection to Churchill the borough.
However, up to half the Amazon workforce is not considered full time, so the minimum wage possible is paid to part-time workers, and also who don’t receive any benefits. Consequently, there is a cost to local governments and agencies who must pick up the difference.
Amazon did not change its pay rate to $15 dollars from minimum wage until fall 2018. In Los Angeles, every $1 in wages results in 24 cents in public assistance.
In areas of low unemployment, under 4%, Amazon simply brings in workers from other areas to fill the void. In between, there is very little or no effect on the employment level.
The growing trend to replace people with robots and automation in distribution warehouses has to be considered. Amazon is at the forefront of this automation. Depending on the complexity of the product, the speed at which human labor is eliminated can be faster than most people realize.
The use of drones for delivery instead of self-driving vehicles has been granted to all the delivery services, including FedEx and Amazon who have their own trucks now. Walmart is also developing its own drone air force and automated vehicles. Noise pollution and air risks will change many of the challenges we currently face.
INVOLVING THE RESIDENTS IN THE DECISION PROCESS
The council rightly sent a survey request for community input as to what should be done with the R&D property. Only about 10% of the residents responded. I have to admit that even I hesitated to fill it out, but after the fracking scare a while back, I posted by own comments at the time to the survey.
The results were quite diverse, but there were clear ideas uniting them all that the integrity and uniqueness of Churchill must be maintained. The implication was that the Churchill Council would take the community’s input into consideration and was open to all ideas.
You can see this survey as well as the comments submitted on the Churchill Borough web site. Sustainability was far and away from the preference.
Some verbal comments during council meetings referred to the property as a blight when, in fact, it is not. Buildings are not occupied and not maintained as a rented property would normally be. But it still looks exactly as it did when Westinghouse occupied the property. It maintains a significant green space within the borough that aids in flood control. I’ve heard that the current flood pond even has fish in it.
What was not suggested by the residents in the survey was an industrial park. Distribution centers belong in industrial parks, not residential communities. They generate a lot of traffic by the very nature of their function and require significant infrastructure to support it. The R&D property was not designed as an industrial park. It was scientists and engineers inventing things. Replacing one set of professionals using the property with another (accountants, lawyers, software developers, etc.) would be the best option for maintaining a positive contribution to the community without adding additional expenses to the borough budget.
Westinghouse was an asset to the borough. It designed the facility to be hidden from view from all but those houses higher on the hill at the pike. It designed and maintained significant green space that helps the cleaner air that we breathe compared to surrounding communities. Westinghouse assured that the open green space of both golf courses survived by supporting them as well.
C 1 DISTRICT VISIONING PLAN AUGUST 2020
“Sense of Place • Community character; cultural and historic factors, elements or influences; safety; democratization of spaces Development helps create a sense of place within the community. Businesses located in the C-1 Zoning District contribute to Churchill’s uniqueness and desirability. Indoor and outdoor community spaces are created for all to use. The scale of the development blends with the surrounding residential area, enhancing community character. The development complements the surrounding residential properties, and property values show stability or growth.”
You can find the complete report on the Churchill Borough web site. “Living Infrastructure and Conservation of Natural Resources • Ecosystem resilience; conservation or restoration of natural and environmental resources Development is on the forefront of integrating green infrastructure with everything that is built, resulting in ecological resilience in the zoning district and Borough. Tree cover is maintained, streams and drainage ways are restored to natural patterns of surface flow, and open space is preserved. Environmentally sound site development averts negative impacts, such as flooding, downstream.”
“Design Standards and Forms • Design-based models for encouraging business development, entrepreneurial innovation, job growth; using guidelines to create functional and beautiful places for people Development conforms to building standards that promote sustainability. Reuse and adaptation of existing structures are encouraged. Sustainable construction like green roofs, pervious paving and other green infrastructure development are used. Geothermal heating and cooling should be encouraged, along with the use of renewable energy, like solar and wind power. Healthy-building concepts are integrated into building design, and thoughtful architecture reinforces the positive attributes of the new development, helping to create a positive identity for Churchill. Design incorporates facilities for walking, biking, and transit.”
“Economic Development • Characteristics of market and social trends in redevelopment; the needs and expectations of property owners, developers and communities Development results in significant tax revenues for the Borough and the Woodland Hills School District. Living wages jobs are created and maintained. Services that are provided meet the needs of residents. Development Objectives with “Sense of Place” Development Objectives • Development supports the community’s “leafy green residential neighborhood” character through substantial planted landscape buffers, and buildings scaled in size to be appropriate to the residential patterns around the zoning district.”
TREE CANOPY LOSS
The 3-6-2020 report stated that the borough lost 48 acres of coverage in just the last 5 years. Picture that: 48 acres of canopy loss is just 5 years in a community of just 3000 residents.
The loss of trees on the Westinghouse property, based on the drawing submitted, will further impact the desirability of buying a property in Churchill and negatively affect home values. It also directly contradicts the quality of life as stressed in the Visioning Plan. Only token replanting is planned on the site, and even that is questionable with all the earth moving required to flatten the area. Even if the replanting did not take 20 years to full height, the amount of space available to do any planting does not exist due to the total footprint of the building, parking, and roads. The net loss must be considered as catastrophic to the required tree canopy.
Read the full report here:
This 25-page full report from 2-19-2020 provides another perspective with graphic explanations.
30 ACRES OF TURTLE CREEK WATERSHED LOST
The study in city hall shows that this project will reduce the amount of watershed. Currently, about 32% of the property is covered. The Hillwood project will result in about 68% of coverage, based on the 830,000 sq. ft. building footprint instead of the 630,000 sq. ft. in the original analysis report.
The entire hill to the right of the Beulah entrance will be removed.
A holding pond will be put at the corner for that creek. The entire hill on the right where the Canadian geese currently reside will be removed for a parallel road at about 1200 foot elevation from 1280 foot elevation at the parkway height. It requires a retainer wall against the higher parkway. That height is roughly the same as the current lower parking area with the gate toward the Greensburg Pike exit in order to visualize the amount of earth to be removed. This is where the sign is currently located.
One way to appreciate the loss is the area between the current Beulah road entrance to Westinghouse at the parkway. There will be no trees or shrubs against the parkway, to the right at the entrance, just a deep holding pond.
The entire wooded area parallel to Beulah will be removed and only 100 to 120 feet from the road will remain. The balance of the hill, about 1290 feet in elevation, will be graded down to about 1200 feet to accommodate the side of the 4 ½ story building. A retaining wall will extend the entire length parallel to Beulah as seen on the drawings.
The only green space on that side of Beulah will be roughly twice the width of the Beulah road. Think about that.
The western side of the property as seen from the Greensburg Pike will require to fill into the current down valley with the road leading to the cabin near Lewin. The actual building will extend to 30 to 50 feet beyond the current round parking areas requiring extensive fill into the valley and more retaining walls instead of trees. You can get a feeling by seeing how close it comes to the current property lines of the houses on Greensburg Pike. Most of the trees and grass will be gone and the road lost.
We are a residential community of well-kept houses and landscapes. It is visually different from the surrounding boroughs and cities. It is an excellent place to raise a family. Penn Hills to the north, and Turtle Creek to the south, are entirely different communities.
There are few businesses in Churchill and that is one of the benefits of living here.
Equating the impact of the original Westinghouse activity to a distribution center as proposed is a deliberately misleading comparison.
It is assumed that there will be just one tenant. A similar but smaller 5 level project at a former GM assembly plant in Delaware will have multiple tenants, after first announcing that it would be for Amazon. How might that affect the functionality of this facility after opening? The same multi-tenant option exists on a multi-level complex in Seattle.
NOISE AND TRAFFIC
The traffic at the original Westinghouse R&D was limited almost exclusively to the actual employees. A similar size distribution center to the Hillwood design can easily have 2,000 trucks passing through the gates, coming in and out, in a 24 hour period. That would mean a semi-truck slowing down to come in or out (slowing down means more soot and noise on the street) every 45 seconds, 2 AM the same as 2 PM plus 700 employees coming and 700 employees going with each shift change.
Since we do not know the end-user or the products or business model, we must make some assumptions based on what similar structures have in other locations. One could argue about the numbers, but that does not change the consequences.
If it is Amazon, Churchill would also have to consider “seasonal” hires, up to 50% more people, to handle rushes. The Christmas hiring starts November 1 through the holidays, and mid-summer for the annual sales event. These temporary employees are often called Amazombies as they work for a few weeks or months, with 10 and 12-hour work shifts, no benefits, before they are then laid off. We can expect an additional influx of itinerant workers, many of who live in campers, adding to the Amazon workforce.
Churchill can expect at minimum 4 times the number of vehicles coming and going above and beyond what the R&D center generated 3 decades ago. These vehicles will bring a significant increase in diesel soot pollution and noise as a result.
The roundabout, which is actually an interesting concept, at William Penn and the new off-ramp seems logical on first viewing but is still not sufficient to handle this increase in traffic, especially the semi-trucks a distribution center of this size requires, morning and night.
We must not forget the semi traffic that currently uses Beulah exit coming from the turnpike and then going north to Allegheny Boulevard, will also be using that roundabout. Nearly all of us have experienced a semi swing wide to make the corner.
Roundabouts are constructed flat, and the elevation change from McCrady to the underpass is significant.
Not all trucks destined for the Amazon distribution center will enter from the parkway east new exit that is proposed. At least an equal number of semis will arrive from the east and enter the complex just outside the borough building and under the parkway to access the property. This has not been addressed.
Beulah is already congested during rush hour in both directions. Having a roundabout might mitigate the current situation, but can in no way accommodate the Amazon distribution traffic. We’ll have semis moving in all directions on all the roads at all hours. We have enough of a challenge during rush hour now. Quadrupling the traffic, and with commercial vehicles, will not be easily remedied without major street widening. It is just not the freeway exits, it is the actual streets within Churchill that will be traversed by this diverse working group.
Can roads be widened to accommodate the traffic increase? Of course. Who pays? That depends on whether it is a borough, country, state, or federal road. Our taxes contribute to each.
There is also the challenge of not enough property to develop a new on-ramp or off-ramp, without having to demolish large sectors of buildings. How will that benefit the borough? If the state or county takes over the property, it comes off the borough tax rolls and reduces the tax base. Whose houses will be losing property through eminent domain?
Who loses property as result? Clearly, the first to lose will be at the circle, or at a new on/off-ramp. Beulah Roadhouses in Churchill will lose some of their front yards. That eminent domain loss will also continue down into Turtle Creek and be faced with the eternal problem of the bend into Turtle Creek.
Churchill Road could also lose front yards. Anyone near the freeway risks property loss if new or modified parkway on or off-ramps are implemented.
Beulah road north into Penn Hills is already as wide as possible. The Blackridge exit on the corner will likely need to be closed, or a light installed. There are other challenges when looking at stoplight solutions. Related is the current problem at the top of the hill at Frankstown and Laketon. Penn Hills will have separate challenges related to this project.
Depending on where you live, going 360 degrees around the project, you can anticipate new inconveniences on all the main arteries and shortcut options.
Traffic does not respect municipal boundaries. Often bottlenecks are several miles from the site. That may involve issues with neighboring municipalities. State highway funding is currently directed mostly to the interstates and not local roads where the semis and workers are driving.
Who loses access out of their property with the traffic increase? Every house on the busy arteries will face difficulty.
The current structures on the Westinghouse property are mostly 4 levels. The only building higher is the smaller square one down where the movie people work. Buildings are tiered down from the summit high point with the original Choo Choo design to the lower elevations. That summit building now has a newer black building façade that is actually lower than the original.
The new 125 ft. height allowance passed by the city council will triple that height, far above existing surrounding trees that are planned for removal. The few new plantings in other areas would not obscure the existing buildings with 4 floors.
Having a large rectangular distribution center that is 3 times higher than what currently exists will be a dominant eyesore for all Churchill residents to see from all angles. Imagine looking up at a 125-foot water tower 4 football fields long and 2 football fields deep.
The original Westinghouse buildings were built in line with the natural curvature of the area, at different levels. The new facility will require the entire existing complex to be removed, (buildings, infrastructure, parking) and the entire area flatted to one level. It will then be bulldozed until the entire area is one flat plane. So anything that is currently under the space in the plan (refers to the Monroeville image above) will be gone. Every tree and every blade of grass will be gone. Think about that; losing almost the totality of the existing green space, and old trees.
There is nothing creative or visually interesting about the architecture of any distribution center. The proposed size alone – a huge shoebox on top of the hill – is simply not appropriate to the adjacent residential community. Even a smaller one-story shoebox is still just a big ugly building.
LAND VALUE IS AT HIGH RISK
What differentiates Churchill from Penn Hills is that people actually want to live here and are prepared to pay extra for it. Churchill is a green and quiet oasis close to downtown, where children can play in the streets, where houses are maintained. Bringing in the wrong kind of business, especially one that increases traffic through the neighborhood streets as employees of the location seek shortcuts to avoid the lights and delays, will actually decrease property value because fewer people will see any uniqueness to living in Churchill. It remains to be seen if crime or vandalism increases with a doubling of the population every day.
The close proximity of the Churchill green oasis actually benefits sections of neighboring municipalities by increasing their own land values which contribute to their tax rolls as well.
Hillwood presented three examples of increases in land values in its presentation as a result of their developments. That is false. All three land value references were in industrial distribution parks developed against undeveloped rural lands without residential density. I could locate not one distribution center in a residential area like Churchill, much less one of this massive size. In addition, the other sites referenced in their slide presentation were also in designated distribution zones, in rural areas, and not in residential areas.
TAXES WILL STEADILY INCREASE
The increase in people will also increase the burden on borough services, such as police, roads, stormwater, etc. which the borough supplies. It seems likely that it will not be long before taxes will increase to cover these expenses. They will be offset somewhat from the development, but increase none the less.
With 5 to 10 times more traffic and heavy heavy semi traffic, the roads may need to be replaced by the borough every 5 years instead of the current 10-year goal.
By stressing the supposed increase in tax revenues this project brings is a red herring. Based on a presentation to other communities, these future tax benefits to the school district and communities are at best wildly optimistic. Hillwood has a reputation for not meeting its commitments to the areas where it sets up distribution centers.
There is no known basis for the projected taxes (in the slideshow) generated without knowing the kind of business and level of turnover it produces. They may be what could happen, but probably not.
This project requires a total leveling of the entire area, repeat, the entire area. The landfill will come to within about 100 feet of Beulah road, ending in a 50-foot high retaining wall. Imagine driving down Beulah and looking up at that wall. See the retaining wall plans above as a visual reminder.
Flattening the hilltop and using the high areas to fill in the low areas, will require soil destabilization and compaction of unusual design due to the mass of the building and its contents. Since our area is susceptible to landslides and other earth movements, this will require nonstandard techniques to stabilize the graded area. Those are unknowns, but likely risks with fill and retaining walls of normal height. This project is not normal.
The building cannot be built underground as the abandoned mine is less than 100 feet below. There is already a question about the proposed foundation being affected by the old mine shafts.
Consequently, the requirements for the proposed building will put undue strain and increase the risk of ground and soil movement on specific parts of the property, and possibly others.
CLAIMS OF A CONTAMINATED PROPERTY
This claim is repeated with no reference to specifics: Not what the contamination is, not where it is, and not how much it is. No one has yet found any document or official verification of any contamination. It seems to be repeated as a scare tactic.
This is separate from the nuclear obligations that Westinghouse continues to control in the smaller buildings and cannot be removed. It is also separate from possible, but not yet found, mine drainage that is characteristic of the entire western PA area, and exist even today in the old Churchill Valley country club stream taken over by the Allegheny Land trust.
HEAT AND MICRO CLIMATES
When the majority of the property is covered with roads, parking, and buildings, summer heat will be captured. This is totally unlike the current configuration that moderates weather due to different buildings at different angles and at different elevations.
Having a single monolith on one plane that covers almost the entire property to a height of 125 feet will certainly create a unique microclimate. We cannot predict the effect.
The height alone will have more winds to contend with and will likely redirect them into unpredictable directions and at unusual velocities.
We do not know what effect it might have on surrounding properties or down the Beulah Road valley. It is radically different from single or double story distribution centers in flat rural land surrounded by farms or forest.
LONG TERM FUTURE OF THE SITE
What does Churchill do if the building ceases to be occupied, and the entire hill has already been radically modified to fit this gigantic footprint? Cities struggle to fill abandoned megastores, like Walmart or Sam’s Club, when those companies close and move to neighboring municipalities with better subsidies.
Amazon has already turned down property lease extensions and relocated from existing developments when they no longer met the need of the company. Last year, Walmart closed 64 Sam’s Club stores that are now vacant.
Smaller facilities are easier to re-rent than customized mega projects.
EFFECT ON THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITIES
What has not been discussed is the amount of traffic that will be using all the roadways in surrounding communities or through the residential parts of Churchill as commuters find short cuts to avoid interchange congestion.
I would expect the majority of workers would be driving up Beulah Road and Churchill Road from the south, or down Beulah or in on William Penn from Wilkinsburg.
Also up the pike, but since that entrance on the pike to the property is not scheduled to be an entrance road, they will drop down to Beulah, pass the Church on Lewin, or go the long way around to the circle.
Since most of those approach roads will be outside the borough, those municipalities will need to pick up the cost of maintenance and police from that traffic.
Lower Beulah cannot be widened due to the sharp turns as it enters Turtle Creek, and where flooding is a real concern.
Driving north to Frankstown and down to Allegheny, another route employees will likely be taking, is already severely backed up during rush hours. It’s not likely to be widened due to the design.
The current number, even during the Pandemic, of diesel semi-trucks turning north and then at the Frankstown light is a constant source of concern. Now we add the distribution center traffic, not all of which will use the parkway coming from Monroeville.
Then there is the short stretch coming off at Holland from the parkway mixing with traffic coming down Churchill Rd. There are times I cannot get out of my driveway.
Add to that the employees and trucks going east and you will have a backup extending deep onto Churchill itself.
With increased traffic comes increased litter. I collect a couple of bags of trash every weekend in front of my house, from the parkway exit to the other side of the gas storage. Others who walk by also collect trash so I am not the only one policing litter in that area. That is just a short stretch. Image what workers from other parts of the city may toss out the window into a borough where they do not live.
PROXIMITY TO THE SCHOOLS
There are several schools on the other side of the Greensburg Pike less than a ¼ mile from the site. How will the air pollution of so many semi-trucks affect the air around the school? Wilkinsburg Jr High is also not far.
How will the additional traffic affect the flow of students and busses?
Woodland Hills Junior and Senior High School and High School Track and Pace School
WHO WILL BE MOST NEGATIVELY AFFECTED BY THE HILLWOOD PROJECT?
- The houses above the property along the pike will be most affected.
- Houses along the Churchill Road with views west will be significantly affected.
- All the houses on the east side of Beulah road whose yards and back windows look up at the back of the property to the black and white buildings will be affected.
- All the house in lower Beulah who look up at the site now, same as above but from a lower-level perspective.
- Everyone wanting to enter or leave the borough under the parkway through the Beulah Road/ old William Penn parkway west exit at the church. This is the most complex bottleneck without a clear solution in the whole project. A whole new off-ramp as also proposed means the Beulah Church, the Churchill municipal building will all take over for the off-ramp and need to either be moved or rebuild elsewhere.
- Everyone who drives up Beulah from Turtle creek north
- Everyone who uses the east onramp from Churchill Road, or off Ramp onto Beulah Road
- Everyone who comes off the parkway onto the Greensburg Pike. The semi-trucks will need to slow mid-corner for the left turn down into the distribution center.
- Anyone who lives or drives along Lewin between the Pike and Beulah
Everyone affected by the view of the monstrous building during the day will see it glowing like a spotlight to the stars at night, and the higher up the view, the brighter the lights.
- Where trucks slow down on the parkway itself as they exit at the Pike or Beulah exits
- Where trucks actually exit the parkway at Beulah Church, slow down and stop for the intersections
- Where trucks stop at the light to enter the actual property and then again at the control gate before continuing in to drop the load
See the 30 page distribution center air qualityh report at the end of this page.
Street access; residential drives and intersections
- All along Beulah
- Along Churchill Road
- William Penn
All the lower parts of the borough and into Turtle Creek
Everyone will feel a significant loss of property value, especially those within sight of the project
BENEFITS OF A PROJECT THAT MATCHES THE CURRENT FOOTPRINT
The current footprint is the area occupied by the existing roads, parking, and buildings, already a very large area that can accommodate a large development.
- NO loss of home value for residents
- Minimum disruption of the core grounds
- Maintenance of all the existing nature of trees and open landscape for the watershed
- No visual eyesore dominating the entire property
- Likelihood of matching the revenue that Westinghouse used to provide to the borough
- No increase in taxation
- Less expense for the developer
- Little or no additional traffic beyond what Westinghouse generated
- Little or no need for the county or state to be involved with complex infrastructure projects
- Little or no need for new electrical, water, sewer, or stormwater construction
- Possibility of using part of the property as a park for residents
IDEAS FOR THE KIND OF DEVELOPMENT ON THE WESTINGHOUSE PROPERTY
The first rule must be to limit any deployment to the current footprint with minimum earth displacement.
These are just ideas that the whole community should contribute to prior to soliciting a developer.
- The borough could purchase the land and use it for the direct benefit of the community
- The borough could rezone parts of the property and turn it into community green space. (Certainly more accessible that the cow pens now)
- The current buildings could be remodeled and rented as a professional center to a single company such as Oxford. Those benefits are listed below.
- The property could allow for subdivision for different tenants with different business models owning their sectors
- Promote it as the corporate headquarters of the growing corporation,
- A combination of tenants and buildings that could also include a last-mile distribution center
If the council limits any development to using the existing footprint, it will save vast amounts of money for the developer and minimize the effect on our community.
- No need to widen and streets, or make any new entrances or exits
- Not need to do major earth movement and their
- Keep the existing green space and not risk additional storm damage
- Not negatively affect real estate values
- Still bring in additional revenue to the school district and borough
- No gradual increase of taxes
- Keep the development neat and organized on the property
- Keep the air free from soot pollution
PROJECT DOES NOT CONFORM TO CHURCHILL ORDINANCES
The size and scope of the Hillwood proposal do not conform to the type and scope of C 1 authorized businesses in the borough ordnance. A resolution allowing a distribution center does not imply acceptance of such a facility the does not conform to a generally accepted understanding of acceptable businesses. Therefore the proposal as submitted should be rejected.
Here are 4 distribution center developers where you can see their developments and then look at their locations with google maps to realize that what Hillwood proposes is not reasonable for Churchill.
and of course https://www.hillwood.com/
To get a grasp on the number and different kinds of distribution centers that Amazon occupies, check out these to extensive lists.
List of all amazon facilities by state
Maps of all Amazon specialty distribution and manufacturing locations
“It’s just consistent, backed up traffic. If we knew it was going to be like this, I don’t think we would’ve allowed it in the town.”
“Residents just a block over from the site say they’re worried about the noise coming from the trucks, the traffic on the roads, and the possibility of air, soil, and water pollution. ‘The hundreds of semis that will be coming in and out, there’s an elementary school close by, and it’s a residential area’ … Beyond the scope of the distribution center, neighbors at the meeting say they were never given a chance to voice their opinion on the project until now. They want to know why.”
“The volume of trucks on these roads … is going to exponentially increase over the years.”
“Amazon has apparently dropped its plans to open a [200,000-square-foot] ‘last mile’ distribution center… The town’s planning board approved a special permit for the center in July 2018, subject to a series of 68 conditions, including that part-time drivers… display a sign so the town could monitor compliance with another requirement that prohibited drivers from using residential side streets. Amazon appealed… saying that the conditions were ‘arbitrary and capricious’ since they did not apply to other companies… also… that since the drivers are ‘independent contractors,’ the conditions are beyond Amazon’s power to control… Other conditions set a minimum for the insurance the drivers would carry and would require background and driving records checks. The permit was also appealed by several neighboring businesses, who said the distribution center ‘will significantly increase delays and accidents’… Traffic concerns were a major issue… with many residents saying it would worsen the congestion…”
“As part of a $100 million redevelopment plan Hilco Redevelopment Partners is building a one-million-square-foot distribution center for Target. Activists are concerned the warehouse will bring many more polluting diesel trucks to Little Village, a neighborhood already inundated by truck traffic…. ‘Our lungs will continue to be the first filters of the diesel particulate matter.'”
“… displeasure with the lights, noise, truck traffic and quality of employment for the site… homeowners said they have seen their property values take a hit… We’re not going to be able to stay, and how are we going to sell to get out of here?”
“neighbors complain they can’t even watch TV because of the trucks rattling by all hours of the day… They want to know why their kids all have asthma…”
“Several speakers at Tuesday’s hearing… called for an independent study of the project’s environmental impact — including increases in noise, air pollution and traffic. ‘This is being rammed through without the community’s input.'”
“[W]e found significantly increased truck and vehicle flow at both monitoring sites after the opening of the online grocery delivery service warehouse, particularly for overnight time windows, on the order of 10% to 40% change… the opening of a new distribution warehouse served to increase traffic, air pollution, and noise… Rather than building facilities that increase traffic, a known risk factor for negative health outcomes including asthma, we advocate for the development of protective environmental structures such as public parks and open spaces… it is possible that as the warehouse grows and increases the number of trucks and vehicles needed to provide service, the currently observed increase in traffic will be exacerbated… In addition to reduced air quality and potentially increased adverse health effects, traffic related pollution also includes increased noise. We estimate an average noise increase of 0.06 dBA from the increased traffic due to the online grocery delivery service warehouse, although this is an average over all time windows and sites, and thus does not adequately represent the annoyance caused by short durations of louder traffic noise, such as those caused by blown vehicle horns or truck air brakes…. While we have focused extensively on the air and noise pollution impacts of traffic, increased truck and car traffic may have many other negative outcomes for a community. These include reducing the ability to comfortably walk or cycle on local streets, the potential for increases in traffic accidents or pedestrian and cyclist accidents, increased travel times around the neighborhood or to local businesses, and decreased access to natural resources such as waterfronts or parks, because traffic can make it unsafe for community members to cross roads or find parking.”
“… warehousing facilities not only consume large tracts of land, but also bring about substantial environmental externalities. Freight trucks generate air pollutants, noise, pavement damage, and traffic safety threats while moving into and out of warehouses. According to studies in public health and traffic engineering, a truck creates significantly higher environmental impacts than a passenger vehicle. The exposure of local residents, especially children and elderly people, to truck related emissions like NOx and particulate matter would cause health outcomes including asthma and respiratory allergies.”
“Commercial vehicles… contribute disproportionately to urban pollution and congestion. They are more apt to idle, make stops and starts, and block traffic. In general, they generate higher nitrogen-oxide and other emissions.”
OFFICIAL AIR QUALITY STUDIES
A 90 page on highway usage of of usuage by trucking
A 123 page truck trip generation study. A heavy warehouse is considered 100,000 sq ft and above, so compare to the 830,000 sq ft 12 story Hillwood structure.
Analysis of freight intensive uses and project freight flows
A 65 page report. This like the above are designated industrial area analysis and not residential as is the Hillwood project.