By Chris Bordelon
Brandywine Realty Trust proposes to build a huge distribution center on the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation property at 15000 Roosevelt Blvd. Brandywine has not communicated with the Somerton Civic Association about the project, and hasn’t disclosed to SCA the traffic, noise and light studies or the “calculations” and methodology behind its questionable claims about its project.
Our community was assured by Brandywine and PIDC in the 2000s that an office/mixed use development was planned for 15000 Roosevelt Blvd. in the redevelopment of the former Byberry Hospital site. But Brandywine and PIDC changed plans recently, proposing a 24-hour truck hub posing enormous traffic, noise, health and quality-of-life issues. Setting aside earlier promises, they didn’t ask for the assent of either the adjacent Arbours residential community or the wider Somerton community. Rather, they effectively said, this is our plan — deal with it.
Brandywine held two short-notice Zoom calls with audiences consisting mostly of Arbours residents and Brandywine agents. It did not advertise the calls to other Somerton residents. Both presentations, I understand, tended to whitewash a project that, in reality, will harm people’s health, property values and quality of life. Brandywine cited doubtful figures suggesting that site operations and truck movements a stone’s throw away from neighbors’ properties would sound no louder than a sewing machine. Asserting that Brandywine’s project won’t affect neighbors’ property values, its spokesman cited a dubious comparison with a distribution center located in an industrial park widely separated from residential neighbors. Brandywine made no special commitments to protect neighbors during construction or to make future adjustments if operations hurt the neighborhood. Brandywine’s spokesman, while promising future neighborliness, hedged when asked if Brandywine would sell the property. Brandywine’s required public disclosures describe its business as owning “office/mixed-use” properties, not distribution centers.
Brandywine hasn’t shared the traffic study with the Civic, leaving the project’s impact on traffic in our neighborhood uncertain. This will affect many people living in Somerton, the roads we use and the air we breathe. While Brandywine claimed that property values wouldn’t be affected, people deserve an unbiased appraisal. Hypothetically, suppose that in 2023, a prospective homebuyer drove through the congestion added to local roads by this facility and reached Southampton and the Boulevard hoping to visit a nearby open house. When they see and hear site operations, breathe some diesel exhaust, and consider that the facility runs all night, will they venture inside?
Brandywine reported net income in excess of $307 million last year. The site at 15000 Roosevelt Blvd. is a “Keystone Opportunity Zone”; its users will avoid taxes. Yet Brandywine hopes to persuade local residents that “economic realities” mean it can’t offer better than what amounts to less than a rounding error on Brandywine’s books as compensation for depressing neighbors’ property values and exposing the community to 24-hour-a-day traffic, truck noise and toxic fumes. A proposed “community benefits agreement” would allow Brandywine to cram the largest possible warehouse and parking lot onto the property, leaving inadequate physical buffers to protect neighbors’ health, property values and well-being. The proposal would not restrict still-secret future tenants or owners or cap the traffic that the site will add to area roads. It apparently addresses Arbours only. Brandywine has negotiated much better agreements with neighbors, even where (as at their Schuylkill Yards complex in Center City) those neighbors feared an increase in neighboring properties’ values. The problem here seems very different, and Brandywine’s proposal fails to address it. Any neighbors agreement to give up rights to object to the project seems far more favorable to Brandywine than anything Brandywine is offering in return.
No one should feel compelled to accept a developer’s unfair terms regarding a project harmful to neighbors if the project can be stopped or forced to become compatible with its surroundings.
PIDC owns the property. Transferring an interest to Brandywine would require action by PIDC.
That action is subject to councilmanic prerogative, which Councilmember Brian O’Neill can use to protect neighbors. The Inquirer accurately describes councilmanic prerogative as an “unwritten rule” whereby district City Council members, including O’Neill, “have absolute authority over land-use decisions in their districts … effectively dividing Philadelphia into 10 fiefdoms.” The prerogative’s only legitimate use is to protect neighborhoods in situations like the present one. O’Neill’s 2019 campaign promised that he would “always” support neighbors in land-use matters.
O’Neill called neighbors to his office in early 2018 to discuss a 24-hour a day truck hub at another PIDC property zoned I-1 next to a residential neighborhood in Somerton, the wooded land behind the former firehouse at Byberry and Worthington Roads. O’Neill didn’t contact SCA’s board about that meeting, telling neighbors that the project wasn’t of community interest. Fortunately, a neighbor told SCA’s board of O’Neill’s meeting. Two board members attended.
This project behind neighbors’ homes adding heavy traffic to already-congested roads seemed to threaten the community’s quality of life. O’Neill told neighbors that he supported the project, but wouldn’t reveal the developer. He said it had appropriate zoning and was essentially a done deal, promising only a line of trees to screen neighbors’ houses.
SCA’s board knew that O’Neill could block the distribution center project using councilmanic prerogative. We put the issue on SCA’s February 2018 meeting agenda. Many neighbors attended. During the meeting, O’Neill appeared, asked for the floor, and told people that the project was off the table. He claimed credit for killing it. PIDC, he said, wasn’t happy with his decision. O’Neill told the Times that the site’s zoning allowed the proposed “light industrial” use, but said that a distribution center was “not the kind of light industrial that belongs behind people’s houses.”
Brandywine’s proposed project is bigger, and as close to people’s homes as the one O’Neill initially promoted and ultimately denied in 2018. O’Neill appears to advocate for this project, telling Arbours residents that they were “extremely fortunate” to have Brandywine develop a distribution center next door. Avoiding mention of councilmanic prerogative, O’Neill and Brandywine emphasize that the site’s zoning permits a distribution center. That interpretation of the Zoning Code is questionable. The Code says “light industrial” land uses are “low-impact” and “generate few adverse operational impacts (e.g., noise, traffic).”
Maybe Brandywine will agree to meet with SCA as we resume holding in-person meetings. But at 15000 Roosevelt Blvd., councilmanic prerogative is the immediate question. O’Neill’s office may tell affected residents that he knows nothing about the project or about councilmanic prerogative, doesn’t have that power, doesn’t think it applies, doesn’t think he can use it, doesn’t want to risk a lawsuit — basically, whatever might make people believe that O’Neill’s inaction is somehow justified. Those reasons haven’t stopped O’Neill from using councilmanic prerogative in the past, and none of them reflect real limitations upon his extralegal power. Declining to use councilmanic prerogative to protect constituents from grasping developers really means using it to help developers brush aside neighbors. Can neighbors count on our councilmember to protect them? ••
Chris Bordelon is president of the Somerton Civic Association.