Looking for Answers Down Below

The city doesn't seem to care that a Houston developer's plans for high-density apartments and a supermarket rest atop abandoned oil fields and possible contamination

Greg Baxter has been in the real estate business since the age of 14, when he started working as a laborer for his father's company, Baxter Construction. The family firm, which was established in 1948, specialized in what's called the "hard-bid business" -- roads, dams, hospitals, schools and other public-works projects.

Baxter left Houston in 1979 to be an investment banker in New York City. In the mid-1980s, he moved to Austin to develop real estate and, for the first time ever, encountered community opposition to his projects.

"Austin's a very neighborhood association-driven city," says Baxter. "I had to do a lot of meeting with people, slide presentations, explaining projects to people, who for one reason or another, were opposed. It's something I had never run into before in Houston, Texas."

Until recently, that is. On December 1, residents from a half-dozen subdivisions in near-north Houston filled the council chamber at City Hall to rail against Baxter's plans to build 288 apartment units and a 63,000-square-foot supermarket between their homes and White Oak Bayou.

Baxter and his partner, Robert Nash, incurred the wrath of the homeowners by asking the city to create a special taxing district to pay for a four-lane public road that would destroy most of a generous helping of publicly owned green space that residents have long claimed as a neighborhood park. The Baxter-Nash project, which the developers call City Park, also alarmed bayou preservationists, who pointed out that just three months before the public hearing, the White Oak flooded badly during Tropical Storm Frances, causing millions of dollars worth of damage to neighborhoods farther north along the bayou.

In the end, however, a majority of City Council concluded that any impact City Park might have on the surrounding neighborhoods was a small price to pay for a new road. By a 7-3 vote (with four councilmembers missing the voting), council created the City Park TIRZ, which for 20 years would collect the increased property taxes generated by the Baxter-Nash development and use it to cover the $3 million cost of extending East T.C. Jester from 11th Street to 18th Street and $2.4 million in additional public improvements. In the estimation of city Planning Director Bob Litke, whose department reviewed the Baxter-Nash proposal and recommended creation of the TIRZ, it was a "win-win situation," at least for the city and the developer.

For the future residents of the City Park Apartments, however, it might not be such a sweet deal.

The Houston Press has learned that state regulators, as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency, have recommended that before breaking ground on City Park Apartments, Baxter-Nash should conduct more environmental testing of the soil and groundwater at the site which, until the last well was capped in 1985, was a producing oil field known as Eureka Heights. Both the EPA and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state's oil and gas activity, recommended more testing after reviewing Baxter-Nash's environmental studies and a site assessment done by a previous landowner in 1996.

None of the studies turned up enough hydrocarbons, metals or other contaminants to indicate the land is unsafe for housing. But, in the opinion of the state railroad commission and the EPA, the Baxter-Nash Phase II Environmental Site Assessment in particular is not conclusive enough to rule out the possibility.

In light of the pending lawsuit between Chevron and the residents of Kennedy Heights, a south Houston subdivision, the slightest possibility that the City Park TIRZ site is contaminated should be taken seriously. In 1991, after contractors installing new water lines in Kennedy Heights complained of "a hydrocarbon odor," the city Health Department learned the subdivision had been built atop a former Gulf Oil Co. oil field.

A local civic group hired a consultant who found "extremely high" levels of petroleum-related chemicals in soil samples taken from the Kennedy Heights neighborhood. Claiming a higher-than-average rate of disease and illness resulting from contamination beneath their homes, 3,000 current and former residents of Kennedy Heights sued Chevron, which had merged with Gulf Oil in 1984. Following a mistrial, the parties were ordered into mediation. In November, after 15 months of fruitless negotiation between Chevron and residents --who are represented by John O'Quinn, one of the nation's most successful plaintiffs' lawyers -- a federal judge ordered a new trial, which has yet to be scheduled.

Last week, in a phone conversation with Baxter and his environmental consultants, an official with the regional EPA office in Dallas raised the specter of Kennedy Heights when he asked the developer to conduct more testing at the City Park site. Bob Wilkinson, an EPA investigator, says the soil-sampling method employed by Baxter's consultant, Berg-Oliver Associates, was not rigorous enough.

For example, Wilkinson said, Berg-Oliver took just one groundwater sample from the entire 20-acre site, which aerial photos from the 1950s and 1960s show is pocked with unlined pits and lagoons used to store waste from the oil-field operation.

"Those old lagoons are a big concern," Wilkinson said. "They would have needed to go down into them for samples and do an extensive analysis of the area, as well as the groundwater. In our opinion, they didn't do that."

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