Intel sued over historic DEC chip site's future

Everyone cool with us plonking down a massive warehouse here? No? Oh well

Exclusive Intel is being taken to court in Massachusetts over its proposals to build a distribution and logistics warehouse on the site of its defunct R&D offices and chip factory that closed in 2013.

At the heart of this showdown are claims by townsfolk that Intel has not revealed to the surrounding community what exactly it intends to build, and that the land is supposed to be used for industry and manufacturing yet it appears a huge commercial warehouse will be built instead.

The x86 giant has spent years trying to figure out what to do with the campus – whether to salvage it for production or research, or to sell it to a developer. It came close to securing a buyer earlier this year.

The site in question is at 75 Reed Road in Hudson, Massachusetts, which holds a special place in computer history. It was the home of Digital Equipment Corporation's R&D and chip manufacturing before Intel took over the land and facility following a patent battle with DEC in 1997. Intel continued R&D at the site and kept it producing chips until it threw the towel in, leaving the location open to options.

Ultimately, the site was up for sale with Intel planning to demolish the 40-year-old main buildings while offloading the land.

However, the chipmaker, perhaps in response to a revitalization of American semiconductor manufacturing funded by CHIPS Act government subsidies, decided it wants to remake the property into a distribution and logistics and storage facility — something that might sound innocuous but has the nearby community up in arms.

Further, Intel doesn't have to use the redeveloped site for its own purposes at all: it can, and probably will, market the facility to a future tenant. And it can breeze through planning law requirements without having to reveal the full scope of traffic, pollution, and other impacts due to its status as a "logistics" facility. And that is what really has the locals enraged.

Crucially, the site is adjacent to two retirement villages with 286 units and a childcare center. As a former R&D and manufacturing facility, neighboring communities understood the scope of traffic and resource impacts of such a factory.

However, the thought of a 30-acre warehouse with more than 100 loading docks and room to park more than 500 trucks and 400 employee vehicles is a much different story. Trucks blaring back-up warnings at all hours, and idling sometimes for hours in the lot, is just one concern. It's estimated that there could be at least 700 truck trips a day.

The traffic implications of creating such a hub have far-reaching impacts, and according to the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Intel and its redevelopment plans, these had not been adequately considered, if not rushed through planning boards without full recognition of effects.

The even bigger problem is that this represents another example of a large tech company wheedling its way through local restrictions to build community-damning facilities, said Michael Pill, the lawyer representing both retirement condo facilities and the childcare center in their legal challenge [PDF] to Intel.

"What Intel has done here is something deeply unpleasant that grows out of its desire to dump the property without any thought to the community where they were once an important pillar of manufacturing," Pill told The Register.

"There is a pattern of development in which big companies come sailing into towns, saying they'll build million-plus square foot facilities with hundreds of loading docks and all the planning is done on spec," added Pill, a partner of law firm Green Miles Lipton.

The proposed actual use of the property is not being fully disclosed by Intel's site plan review application documents, making it impossible to make an accurate determination

Which leads us to the real issue: the matter of speculative planning in which details of redevelopments and other changes to land are submitted to local officials to scrutinize and approve, yet there is no real sense of what will actually happen at a site. It's entirely possible for corporations to successfully submit speculative planning applications that are open ended, with the final use and who will use it flexible and decided later. One downside is that it's not possible to therefore accurately model the impact of the development.

This is a problem in Hudson and elsewhere in the US, albeit in different manifestations. The plaintiffs in the case against Intel say the warehouse redevelopment proposal is too speculative to be considered: the final purpose, and who will use it, is unclear.

"When it's on spec, we don't know who the tenants will be," said Pill, speaking generally about speculative planning applications. "So the traffic engineers come in with completely phony traffic reports and it's only once the thing gets built that the community finds out, oh, it's a big regional hub for Amazon or Walmart. It creates a traffic nightmare and livability nightmare but it's too late."

The Hudson legal complaint, which asks for the courts to adjudicate the situation and decide whether Intel can go ahead with its plans, claimed the tech giant "admits certain assumptions have been made about the potential uses of the facility because 'the building is being designed and entitled on a speculative basis to allow the application to market the project and seek a tenant.'"

The plaintiffs contend "the proposed actual use of the property is not being fully disclosed by Intel's site plan review application documents, making it impossible to make an accurate determination whether the proposed use really is permitted under the bylaw."

Pill argued that when it comes to large companies, there isn't such a thing as a generic warehouse. A small business has a warehouse. A tech giant has a non-trivial sprawling logistics estate. So if an internet goliath writes down in an application that it wants to build warehouse, it could be anything: officials won't know what it truly entails. A massive logistics facility could be plonked down without a full reckoning of its wide-reaching impacts because boards don't know what they're planning, it's claimed, which is a huge problem.

In response to the lawsuit, Intel's lawyers said in a filing that the proposed changes are subject to approval by the town: "Because the proposed redevelopment is a permitted use in the zoning district, the project will require site plan review from the town of Hudson planning board." In other words, it's all above board and officials should therefore green light it.

However, the plaintiffs claim the paperwork submitted for that review, being speculative in nature, does not actually disclose Intel's full intent for the site, and so it must be impossible to approve.

"They must think everyone in Hudson is an idiot," Pill told us. "They must think everyone is so gullible and stupid."

A spokesperson for Intel was not available to comment further. ®

The tech press should expose the truth. Is there something you want us to report? Contact our investigative staff in confidence. We bite the hand that feeds IT.

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