Paradise Lost

Milby's cleanup cost Houston $10 million. Now HCC says the site is still contaminated.

Once upon a time, the city promised to grow something beautiful in the decaying Second Ward. "La Villa de las Flores" -- the village of flowers -- is what they called this future slice of heaven, where 59 low-income families would live happily ever after.

Sixty architects volunteered in 1992 to discuss with potential residents where to locate the green space for wedding receptions and whether they wanted bungalow or Mexican-style architecture. More than 400 families applied in hopes that their fairy godmother, then-mayor Bob Lanier, would choose them for the ball.

Seven years later, the land that might have been La Villa de las Flores, the former Milby Bus Barn, sits vacant about a mile east of downtown. There are no homes, no families. Bored neighborhood kids ride their bikes back and forth under a picturesque view of the skyline, on sweetly named cul-de-sacs: Calle Azalea, Calle Violetta. These streets, complete with sewer drains, lie among ten acres of mowed grass, in a setting that looks perfect for housing. There's no outward hint of the big, bad toxic wolf that showed up in 1992 to eventually chase away the dreams of what could have been Houston's first such inner-city subdivision.

The Milby field: Is it safe or not?
Phillippe Diederich
The Milby field: Is it safe or not?

Even though the city and state long ago declared Milby clean of the waste it once harbored, toxic stigma still oozes from the site. The most promising proposal in years to make something out of the forlorn field was thwarted this summer. The potential buyer, Houston Community College, was scared off by the possibility that toxic chemicals still lurk underground to harm future inhabitants.

Unclear data and varying opinions leave the issue of health risks hazy. What is clear: Houston poured $10 million into cleaning up a large field in the middle of an area that desperately needs development, and four years later that field remains untouched.

Now known primarily as "Milby," the 10.5-acre site sprang to industrial life in 1847 as a lumberyard. The area at Milby and Navigation was used, among other things, for meatpacking, blacksmithing and trolley maintenance. In 1976 the city bought the property for a bus repair facility and held onto the land after Metro closed up shop there in 1983.

Then-mayor Lanier, as part of his push to improve neighborhoods, proposed the 59-home subdivision in 1992. Low-income families would apply to own one of the 1,200-square-foot houses for $40,000 to $50,000, with about $8,000 of that subsidized by the city.

That October, workers doing preliminary work on the site discovered three underground fuel storage tanks left by previous owners. Soil tests revealed major petroleum and lead contamination. In one spot, the lead concentration was almost 300 times higher than the level considered safe for residential use.

City health officials examined nearby houses and encouraged parents to test their kids for contamination. Dangerous lead levels were found in 34 of the 39 homes and in 20 percent of the children who were tested. City officials maintained that lead does not tend to travel underground, so the contamination was not from the site. They attributed the problem to lead-based paint common in older homes.

In June 1993 the city began a massive cleanup of the property. It removed and replaced 58,300 cubic yards of topsoil, enough to cover a football field 14 feet high. The cost ballooned further when the city installed "groundwater recovery systems" to pump out water tainted with chlorinated solvents and motor fuel.

In May 1995 Fugro Environmental Inc. reported to the city that the cleanup had put Milby within Environmental Protection Agency standards for residential areas, and the city health department declared it suitable for housing. Lanier's chief of staff, Dave Walden, told a reporter, "I think we're going to end up building housing there."

But what followed was only silence.

The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission "certified" Milby as safe last summer, releasing the city from liability to the state and almost certainly to the EPA. But still the city never brought up La Villa de las Flores or affordable housing again.

"Though the site was cleaned up and the certificate was issued, there's no way to make it entirely clean," says Stephen Lewis, the real estate chief of the city legal department. "With people planting and kids playing in the dirt, we think there could be a risk. And we didn't want the city to get sued, if for instance there was a rash of ailments."

But the fairy-tale potential of a big green field in the middle of the inner city has not been lost on everyone. Abel Davila, a Houston Community College trustee, crusaded for more than a year for HCC to build its East End Technology Skills Center on the site. Davila's also running for the District 8 City Council seat but says his effort for Milby is not politically motivated.

Davila says Milby is a large site that would be an obvious location for the vocational training center. (He says the city might lease it to HCC for as little as $1 yearly.) His effort was supported by some state legislators and HCC officials. But then the buried ghost of Milby's past reared up again.

In considering the purchase of the property, the 52,000-student college system used Zephyr Environmental Group to review the city's earlier work and assess Milby's risks. Its conclusion contrasted sharply with the hunky-dory opinions of Fugro, the city's Health and Human Services Department and the TNRCC. Zephyr's Joe Zupan noticed apparently high levels of arsenic in the soil and vinyl chloride in the groundwater.

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