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Dallas News: Planners offer ways to separate hazards from redeveloped neighborhoods (2008)

April 20, 2013

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American Beauty Mill Loft resident Sean von Merveldt hangs out with friend Jenni Grafton in a meeting area of the lofts. Industrial lofts are a growing trend in the Cedars, but most residents are unaware of the threat of ammonia from near by Pilgrim’s Pride. Dallas News Photo

PART THREE IN A SERIES

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, June 3, 2008, edition of  The Dallas Morning News.

***

Last of three parts

All around are portraits of urban decay.

Men loiter outside the Lady Love II topless club. Thieves have stolen so many of the metal letters from the Morris Garage that it now reads MO IS GA.On weekends, people sell everything from raw steaks to designer jeans to leaf blowers from the backs of their pickups.

But here at the end of South Lamar Street, planners of the Trinity River corridor envision a “major retail power center” – with perhaps a SuperTarget and a mixed-use village known as the “Ideal Neighborhood.”

It’s a rare opportunity for Dallas to redevelop an area long blighted by a legacy of racial segregation and haphazard development that placed plants with dangerous chemicals a block from homes.

Fixing that can be difficult but not impossible.

From industrial sanctuaries to buffer zones to buyouts, planning experts have developed solutions that some older cities in the Rust Belt and on the eastern seaboard already have adopted.

Dallas is following some of these practices with consolidated industrial zones along the Trinity corridor, a buyout of homes in Cadillac Heights and planned developments that prevent industries from rebuilding in new loft areas.

But when it comes to protecting its residents from hazardous chemicals, the city’s record is mixed. In some cases, the city allows new residential neighborhoods to go up next to industrial plants.

More than 10 months after a gas plant explosion near downtown, the problem of hidden hazards has not been fixed. Although the city requires special permits for nightclubs, cemeteries and homeless shelters, it doesn’t require a permit for plants and warehouses that store, sell or use toxic chemicals. The hazardous business regulations require special permits only for factories that make chemicals.

As a result, the acetylene plant that exploded last summer and dozens of the most dangerous sites in Dallas found in a Dallas Morning News investigation aren’t covered by existing regulations.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said the city should re-examine the permitting process. Other problems will be more difficult, he said.

“I’m not sure there are simple answers,” Mr. Leppert said. “I don’t think it’s realistic to say we’re not going to have any type of material that could be toxic anywhere near people living or working. The world and life are not 100 percent, but you do everything you can to make sure that companies are using the best practices.”

Old problems

One of the difficulties for any city trying to reduce the risk from hazardous chemicals is that so much of the development happened long ago. Whether it was the old company town model, racial politics or uncertainty over how a neighborhood should develop, industry and housing have existed side by side for decades.

Even future problems are hard to avoid. New development is often too attractive to pass up. But it’s also difficult, legally and politically, to tell a factory or warehouse that’s been there for years to move.

“Zoning is a prospective tool and not a retrospective tool,” said Jim Schwab, manager of the hazard planning research center for the American Planning Association. “You can affect future land uses, but you can’t use zoning to uproot something that is already on the ground.”

Area officials and plant safety managers say that one of simplest ways they can increase safety is attending local emergency planning meetings. That helps first responders coordinate emergency plans. But local residents may have no idea what to do.

Dozens of residents near the plants were interviewed by The News, and nearly all of them said they were unaware of the chemicals in their neighborhoods or how to respond in an emergency.

“It’s a good idea to communicate with the community and explain to them what’s going on,” said John Bresland, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. “I would certainly like to know what you are doing to prevent an accident.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example, requires nuclear power plants to inform anyone living within a 10-mile radius about what to do in case of emergency.

Another solution city planners have come up with is creating industrial protection zones, or “sanctuaries” – where the most dangerous or noxious factories can operate freely without fear that rising land values or complaints from neighbors will push them out. Some cities, such as Chicago, offer tax incentives for industries to move to such zones.

Cities that were built on industry, including Chicago and Baltimore, have come up with plans to buffer factories from the trend of industrial lofts.

“We call it the dust-on-the-BMW syndrome,” said Laurie Feinberg, Baltimore’s chief of comprehensive planning. “As soon as you get yuppies that move in, they say, ‘Oh, how charming! There’s factories,’ and then they go squawk when the dust is on the BMW.”

Baltimore created zones to preserve land for industries that needed access to ports where developers could not seek rezoning for lofts or offices. And in the 1980s, Chicago tried a similar approach with two dozen industrial corridors, many of them designated as tax increment financing districts – a tool that allows the city to reinvest tax revenue into street repairs in the district and job training for the industries.

Tax districts have been used in Dallas mainly to encourage redevelopment of neglected neighborhoods or to transform old industrial areas into mixed-use districts.

Dallas solutions

But the Trinity plan and the forwardDallas! comprehensive plan do call for two consolidated industrial zones at each end of the Trinity corridor – near Interstate 35 and Royal Lane to the northwest and Interstate 45 and Interstate 20 to the southeast.

The city is looking for alternatives for industries that might be squeezed out by encroaching development, said Paul Lehner, director of planning and development for the Trinity River Corridor Project.

When a zoning change occurs, the city can identify buildings that no longer fit the vision for the area as “nonconforming uses.” The landowners are typically given a grace period of five or 10 years to come into compliance or move.

Dallas has tried this approach with industrial plants in the Cedars and with homes that had popped up near heavy industry in West Dallas, west of Loop 12 near Singleton Boulevard. Homes are torn down if they have been significantly damaged, vacant for six months or found to be a nuisance.

A much rarer option for cities is a buyout. This was employed in southern Louisiana in the early 1990s, when oil and chemical companies faced with complaints of pollution and lawsuits over accidents bought out surrounding neighborhoods to create a buffer zone.

In Dallas, a 2002 lawsuit settlement led the city to buy up a small number of homes in Cadillac Heights near an old lead smelter site, animal rendering plant and a sewage treatment plant. Voters have since approved a plan to buy up more than 200 other homes for a new police academy.

But such a solution is expensive, costing the city $23.7 million.

Change in the area

Beyond the familiar Lamar Street of tourists and skyscrapers, beyond Gilley’s honky-tonk and the Dallas police headquarters, exists a wasteland of scrap yards and liquor stores.

In the 1950s, this was literally the edge of the city. For many years since, it has felt that way.

In the 2000 census, the median income was less than half of that citywide. Two in five adults didn’t finish high school. Nearly one in three are unemployed.

Driving through the neighborhood, a rough count shows that almost two out of every three businesses in the area is a liquor store or bar.

The residents of this South Dallas neighborhood – squeezed by Interstate 45, the Trinity River and a hook of U.S. Highway 175 known as dead man’s curve – have more immediate things to worry about than the tons of anhydrous ammonia that Borden Dairy stores to keep its milk cold.

Borden, neighbors say, has been good for the neighborhood. After all, it’s one of the few things that isn’t rotting, rusting or falling down.

“We’ve been there a long time,” said Fred Stern, a Borden spokesman. “We operate as carefully as we possibly can.”

The area developed in the early 1900s as merchants moved out of the Cedars to a new suburb called Colonial Hill. Less desirable land toward the floodplain and railroad was designated for domestic and industrial workers.

Blacks were kept to the south. But with the addition of a new black neighborhood to the east, called for in the 1944 city plan, whites fled.

Now, this is the area where the new Trinity Parkway will end, and for planners, that makes it prime real estate for redevelopment.

The south side of Lamar, where the Borden sits, will be a “convenient shopping location,” including perhaps a SuperTarget, a cinema and an electronics store, according to the plan.

The area of dilapidated bungalows north of Lamar will be incorporated into the “Ideal Neighborhood” to the north. Replacing them will be mixed-use villages with stores and urban lofts, perhaps built with corrugated metal to pay homage to the industrial ambience.

“Ideal neighborhood, huh?” chuckles Tommy Edwards, the proprietor of a local dive called the Ghetto Club. “I’m trying to figure out how many years this is away because they’ve been talking about this for years.”

It’s understandable that residents and business owners would be skeptical about the city’s plans to resuscitate the neighborhood.

Like many areas of the city – from the frame homes of Eagle Ford to the Bachman Lake apartments to the Cedars lofts – residents have gotten used to living side by side with industry.

But city officials are optimistic. The rearranging of highways in a more appealing fashion is expected to transform South Lamar from a place to leave into a place to come to.

Borden Dairy will remain, but the city will try to separate industrial plants from residential areas with landscaped buffers, potentially reducing the risk from a toxic release.

South Lamar will be one of the last areas studied by Trinity planners, probably some time in 2010. After that, the area’s future depends on how well developers buy into the plans.

“That’s going to be a complicated one because there’s a lot of issues,” said Mr. Lehner, the Trinity plan director. “It’s one thing to put something in a plan. It’s another thing to have it happen.”

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