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Dallas News:High-end housing lures many near downtown – and close to chemical sites (2008)

April 20, 2013


Oak Farms Dairy sits just on the other side of the Trinity River and downtown Dallas where in a worse case scenario 25,030 people might be affected according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Dallas News Photo


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Monday, June 2, 2008, edition of  The Dallas Morning News.


Second of three parts

The concrete silos of the American Beauty Mill Lofts loom like a castle over the artifacts of one of Dallas’ oldest industrial districts. These turn-of-the-century hulks create an edgy decor for urban pioneers drawn by the charming grit and panoramas of a vibrant skyline.

But with redevelopment comes risk. Not all the industrial plants are gone. Residents of the former mill also have views of the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant, which stores tons of toxic ammonia that in an accident could freeze clothes to skin and burn a victim’s lungs so badly that it would hurt too much to breathe.

As people return to the central city for lofts and condos in the Cedars, south of downtown, and in the Oak Cliff Gateway along the Trinity River, many unknowingly come shoulder to shoulder with hazardous chemicals.

The last three decades have brought new development to declining areas near downtown. But in the attempt to convert industrial ghost towns into utopias of urban living, little attention has been paid to the dangerous chemicals used at nearby plants.

Planners, city officials and residents dwell instead on the noises, smells and outside clutter that industrial works produce. Some plants, such as Pilgrim’s Pride and the Oak Farms Dairy, which both store ammonia, have no plans to leave. And the city doesn’t plan to make them. After all, they have been dedicated corporate citizens, providing jobs and stability as other factories closed.

Despite ordering other industry out of the Cedars, the city told Pilgrim’s Pride it could stay. And as one hand of the city planned for residential riverside in the Oak Cliff Gateway, the other granted expansions to Oak Farms Dairy, despite a series of safety violations.

Pilgrim’s Pride and the Oak Farms Dairy say they place a priority on safety and that the chances of an accident affecting the public are slim. But others say the mere juxtaposition of industry and new lofts and condos is cause for concern.

“It magnifies any incident we have,” said Capt. Ted Padgett, hazardous materials coordinator for Dallas Fire-Rescue. “An ideal world would be having an industrial park with a nice greenbelt around it that would give you a margin of error. But that’s not the real world. That’s just nirvana.”

In crafting the Cedars renaissance, known in city code as Planned Development No. 317, officials established regulations for bars, country clubs, mausoleums, day cares, convents and monasteries, carnivals and circuses, mortuaries and commercial wedding chapels. The city arborist recommended a list of suitable trees.

But nowhere in the ordinance that created the Cedars did city officials discuss the danger of living near as much as 42,500 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.

That’s the amount that Pilgrim’s Pride listed in a risk-management plan filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Submitting a scenario does not mean that a harmful release is likely, or that companies have violations.

In an accident, the toxic gas, used to refrigerate chicken at the plant, could spread nearly two miles, making its way through downtown to the edge of Uptown.

The company estimates that as many as 31,700 people could be in the danger zone.

Decline, reincarnation

The Cedars, just south of downtown between Good Latimer and Lamar, was once a silk stocking district of Victorian homes secluded in a red cedar forest. But as industry pushed out from downtown in the early 1900s, the wealthy merchants fled, and factories and warehouses moved in.

Decades of anything-goes zoning turned the Cedars into a jumble.

The area is a hodgepodge of homeless shelters, artist studios, high-end lofts, warehouses, hundred-year-old cottages, hot-sheet motels, an elementary school, a city park, a steel mill, a rubber factory, a movie set made to look like Baghdad and a handful of working man’s bars with scantily clad ladies painted on the side.

“It is an area of Dallas in which, despite its current scruffy appearance, one can see birth, decline and reincarnation,” American Beauty Mill developer Bennett Miller wrote in a history of the Cedars.

Mr. Miller has built lofts in a meatpacking plant, a tannery and a row of buildings that included a grape soda bottling plant, a theater and Jack Ruby’s nightclub, the Silver Spur.

“I see no reason not to use the eclectic nature so that it kind of has a charm of its own,” he said on recent drive through the Cedars. “I wouldn’t want a dynamite plant here. I’m sure there are opportunities for chemical spills. You just have to be careful about it.”

In 2002, the city assembled a task force to simplify zoning in the Cedars. One of the outcomes was a provision for “non-conforming” uses – businesses no longer deemed compatible with the changing community – to move within a 10-year grace period.

Many industries, including a lumberyard a few doors down from Pilgrim’s Pride, were told they’d have to leave. The chicken plant was not.

Peer Chacko, assistant director for long-range planning, said the city considered several factors, including the potential impact on residents. But Pilgrim’s Pride wasn’t in an area the city envisioned for many new lofts and town homes.

“We have been in this location for at least 40 or 50 years,” said Pilgrim’s Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson. “We provide good jobs with competitive wages and benefits to approximately 1,700 people at our Dallas complex, and we have an excellent safety record.” A search of Occupational Safety and Health Administration records found no violations at the Cedars plant.

On a warm night in the Cedars, Doug Caudill drinks a beer in his converted flophouse behind an old ice cream cone factory.

In 1983, he was one of the first to move into one of Mr. Miller’s lofts and now owns property in the Cedars. A former corporate lawyer with a home in North Dallas, he says the eclectic nature of the Cedars maintains his sanity.

“I don’t have a problem with them,” Mr. Caudill says of Pilgrim’s Pride. “My vision of the area is that’s exactly what I want. Having a homogenous Uptown where everybody is a white middle-class yuppie, that to me is not appealing.”

The next Cedars

With the Trinity River development project moving forward, many see the Oak Cliff Gateway as the next Cedars, Uptown or Victory Park.

Planning studies as far back as the mid-1980s have noted the area’s potential as prime residential real estate, just across the Trinity from downtown. And it’s been more than 15 years since the city provided tax incentives to stimulate private development.

Only in the last five years has the area burst with apartments and town homes.

Across Zang Boulevard from the new development is the Oak Farms Dairy. From the viaducts leaving downtown, the dairy’s white silos gleam like monuments on the horizon. Built in 1936, it’s as close to a landmark as any for the Oak Cliff Gateway and has been hailed by planners as a symbol of the area’s economic vitality.

Oak Farms has brought hundreds of jobs to a forsaken part of Dallas that in the 1980s was generally poorer, less educated or more transient than the rest of the city. According to one planning report, all permits issued between 1990 and 1996 were for demolition or to fix code violations. None was for new construction.

But the dairy also stores several tons of ammonia.

In 1996, ammonia fumes seeped into the building, injuring 15 workers. OSHA issued a $23,750 fine for violations related to safety management of highly hazardous chemicals, emergency response and exit routes.

The fine was reduced to $4,612.50 after negotiations – something OSHA says it does to reward companies that make improvements.

A week after the accident, a consulting firm for the city released a market analysis for the Oak Cliff Gateway that reported Oak Farms’ “expansion efforts have been hampered by legal obstacles and resistance from neighbors.” It recommended that “all efforts should be made to develop a strategy to assist Oak Farms Dairy in their expansion efforts.”

In 2003, OSHA fined Oak Farms $6,750 for causing an explosion hazard while welding. The fine was reduced to $1,625.

In 2006, the dairy faced a $24,375 fine for a series of safety violations related to training employees and contractors to deal with hazardous chemicals. That fine was cut in half.

Despite decades-long plans to redevelop the area as residential riverside, the City Council has allowed Oak Farms to expand five times.

The stiffest opposition came in 1999.

Ammonia leaks and 18-wheelers no longer fit the dynamics of the area, Charles Smith, who owned land near the future town homes, wrote to the city.

Veteran city planner Michael Finley recommended denial, but the council unanimously approved the expansion.

“You have to remember, Oak Farms has been there since the ’30s,” said Mr. Finley, who retired earlier this year after 43 years. “So what do you want to do, build all your condos right next door to them and push them out?”

Marguerite Copel, spokeswoman for Dean Foods, which owns Oak Farms, said the approval of the expansion demonstrated the city’s faith in the dairy’s ability to operate safely.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that any possibility of a leak is completely and hopefully mitigated,” she said. “And if something does happen, that we handle it appropriately.”

Wake-up call

Brad Brakey stood on his balcony at the Trinity Townhomes last summer, watching the flaming canisters from the acetylene plant explosion near downtown Dallas launch like bottle rockets over the Trinity River.

“I think that should have been a wake-up call,” he said recently at the complex where town homes sell for as much as $500,000.

Mr. Brakey bought the first town home in the complex, closest to Oak Farms.

An engineering consultant who investigates fires and disasters across the country, he has seen the physical, economic and political toll such accidents can cause.

Yet until the gas explosion, Mr. Brakey didn’t think much about the dairy’s ammonia.

“It would just be a tremendous black eye and embarrassment,” he said. “The whole area has changed, and you have something that’s potentially dangerous, highly toxic. Yeah, that’s a big problem.”

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