Cleaning Up and Moving In
Pollution-plagued properties can turn productive
By Jorjanna Price
For decades, a trip to Montgomery Ward in downtown Fort Worth was an occasion for the whole family. The massive, eight-story building on West 7th Street held something for everyone. Dad could buy a shirt for work, Mom could check out the furniture show room, and the kids could get school shoes.
The retail store, catalog center, and warehouse stayed open for 73 years. But in 2000, business was already declining when a tornado badly damaged the building. The Montgomery Ward complex closed the following year.
For a while, this “white elephant” appeared to have no future. But that was before the property was enrolled in the TCEQ’s Voluntary Cleanup Program, or VCP.
In a dramatic transformation, the newly named “Montgomery Plaza” has now opened as a residential and commercial center. More than 200 condominiums are selling at prices from $300,000 to over $1 million. Residents can take elevators downstairs to enjoy restaurants, a wine bar, a coffee shop, and specialty retail stores. The museum district is just blocks away. One part of the property is home to a SuperTarget.
Before this downtown property could be restored as a thriving mixed-use center, the developers had to address the legacy contamination stemming from the old store’s auto service center, as well as on-site furniture repair and painting operations.
For Montgomery Plaza and hundreds of other properties around the state, the VCP has provided incentives for the cleanup of contaminated sites—by offering lenders and future owners liability protection.
Since the VCP was created, in 1995, about 2,070 sites have been enrolled. Of those, 1,422 have received certificates of completion, meaning that the cleanup was conducted satisfactorily and the properties were declared ready for reuse. Several hundred other projects are in line for certificates.
Properties See a New Day
The VCP was designed to provide administrative, technical, and legal incentives to get contaminated properties cleaned up.
Otherwise, the property owners or purchasers might be unable to develop the properties, which once operated as industrial or commercial sites, for fear of environmental liability. In many cases, pollution that occurred under a previous owner stands in the way of a sale, according to Jay Carsten of the TCEQ Remediation Division.
Recent VCP Projects, 2007-2009
|VCP Project||City||Type of Facility|
|DART Northwest||Dallas||Rail operating facility|
|Haven for Hope||San Antonio||Homeless shelter|
|McCoy’s Building Supply||Pharr||Building supply/lumber store|
|Mockingbird Paint & Body||Dallas||Autobody repair and sales|
|Spring Branch Service Center||Houston||Electric utility service center|
|Puckett Plaza||Amarillo||Shopping center|
|Habitat for Humanity Store||Garland||Building supply store|
|Harris County Multi-use Facility||Houston||Maintenance facility|
|Green Water Treatment Plant||Austin||Water treatment plant|
|Maplewood Plaza||Dallas||Commercial office space|
|Farmers Market||Dallas||Vacant property|
|East Texas Medical Center||Mount Vernon||Hospital|
|Cypress Semiconductor||Round Rock||Semiconductor manufacturing|
|Lockheed Marshall Plant||Grand Prairie||Missile/aircraft parts manufacturing|
|North Texas Regional Airport||Denison||Offices and training facility|
“If not for the VCP, many of these properties would just be sitting unused or abandoned,” he said. “That’s the message we hear time and time again from people who have gone through the VCP to rehabilitate property and give it a productive life. The VCP certificate of completion is the gold standard—once it is issued, that property can operate again as a business. It can hire employees and generate tax revenue.”
Based on information from a survey of VCP participants, property cleanups and redevelopment since 1995 have helped create about 21,400 Texas jobs and boost local tax rolls by at least $1 billion.
The program’s success, Carsten said, lies in the fact that it is market-driven. “The prospect of money being made in the future from property development now encourages investment in cleanup.”
Once a certificate of completion is issued for the property, parties who were not responsible for the contamination, including future lenders and landowners, are protected from liability for additional site cleanup. Completing the program also restores a property’s market value, which further helps with resale or reuse. Moreover, nearby businesses and neighborhoods benefit when an eyesore is eliminated.
Carsten said that properties must clear several requirements to be accepted in the VCP. The site must not be subject to an order or permit from the TCEQ or be undergoing a TCEQ enforcement action. Also, the applicant must be able to pay for the remediation costs, plus the TCEQ’s $1,000 application fee and additional TCEQ staff oversight costs.
Much of the $1 million the TCEQ spends on the program each year is covered by the fees. The Environmental Protection Agency also supports the program with grant funds.
Measuring the Risk
Site cleanups under the VCP are risk-based, meaning that the level of environmental remediation is tailored for the intended use of the land. A site being restored for commercial use will not face cleanup standards as rigorous as a property destined for residential use. For example, a site intended for industrial use is allowed lead levels up to 1,600 parts per million, whereas a property planned for residences can have lead levels no greater than 500 ppm.
The Montgomery Ward project in Fort Worth was an unusually large undertaking, encompassing 46 acres. It had to address contamination left by several underground storage tanks, a truck wash bay, a paint booth, and an auto-service building. More than 3,600 cubic yards of soil were excavated. Also, shallow groundwater was restricted from drinking through a municipal setting designation.
Another monumental VCP project—a former airport in Austin—had to go much further to remediate soil and groundwater, because individual homes were planned for the site.
In 1999, the City of Austin transferred civilian aviation functions from Mueller Municipal Airport to the former Bergstrom Air Force Base. That left 700 acres of empty land not far from downtown, the Capitol, and the University of Texas. After years of analysis and planning, the city decided that mixed use was the best option for the prime real estate, and opened the way for the development of an “urban village.”
That goal meant remediating the grounds, which had been an airport from the 1920s through the 1990s, to residential standards—clean enough for planting gardens and children romping in yards. The city had to address pockets of the land that had been used for maintenance facilities, chemical and petroleum storage, and a landfill.
About 10,478 cubic yards of affected soil was excavated and disposed off-site. Multiple monitoring wells were established to test groundwater.
Today, hundreds of new homes and a park have been built within a short distance of newly built stores, restaurants, and medical facilities. The Mueller community, still in development, is expected to become home to some 10,000 people. City officials say the redevelopment is serving as an economic catalyst for the inner city.
Another TCEQ program addresses liability for contamination that migrated from one property to another. A florist operating next to a dry cleaner may have had underground contamination and not know that the problem existed—until he’s ready to sell his shop.
The Innocent Owner/Operator Program was established for property owners who did not cause or contribute to the contamination found on their site. These applicants also pay $1,000 and an hourly fee to cover the agency’s costs.
In fiscal 2008, the TCEQ issued 45 innocent owner/operator certificates, bringing the total since 1997 to 431.
Unlike the VCP release of liability, these certificates cannot be transferred to future owners or operators.
History of Cleanup Projects
|2009 (As of March 25)||40||52|
How to Enroll in the Voluntary Cleanup Program
Each applicant wanting to obtain a “certificate of completion” from the VCP must submit a fee of $1,000. This amount goes toward the TCEQ’s costs of providing oversight and reviews of the environmental cleanup.
After the initial $1,000 has been spent, the agency will invoice the applicant each month to ensure that further agency expenses are recouped. The final tally of the project fees will depend on the complexity of the site being remediated.
For more information, visit the VCP Web page.