Is the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center About to Move to the Old Dump? [UPDATED]

Nobody told the residents of Sunnyside that the longtime Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, on Cullen Boulevard between Reed Road and Airport Boulevard, is about to move to the landfill.

That’s not the case, according to city officials, including Sylvester Turner. Besides, say the Houston mayor and Dwight Boykins, City Council Member for District D, the so-called proposed relocation site isn’t an active landfill, but rather a “former dump” with no current evidence of toxicity.

During last week’s Houston City Council meeting, community members from the neighborhood – located off State Highway 288 between The Loop and Beltway 8 – unleashed their concerns to Boykins, who at one point lost his cool and got into a heated exchange with one of the speakers. Turner, meanwhile, bolted from the City Hall chambers immediately after the first Sunnyside resident had spoken from the dais.

The nearly 40-year-old Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, a City of Houston Health and Human Services facility, is an invaluable resource for the impoverished and crime-prone area. The facility not only offers drug prevention programs and a supplemental health-care program for women, infants and children, but also hosts social gatherings, GED classes and a program for seniors.

“The center is the most utilized in the city of Houston,” Travis McGee, a civic leader for the Sunnyside-South Park areas, told the Houston Press. “It’s in a perfect spot. There are restaurants, banks, a post office, drugstores. Everything's within walking distance.”

McGee, who ran for Houston’s City Council District D in 2013, discovered through the rumor mill that a brand-new, yet-to-be-constructed multi-service center could be located at what locals call “dump row.”

“There was absolutely no community input,” says McGee.

The proposed site, according to Sunnyside community activist Charles X. White, is on the backside of Sunnyside Park, which is located across the street from Young (formerly Sunnyside) Elementary School on Bellfort near Scott Street. White tells the Press that Sunnyside Park sits on top of a former landfill.

Turner countered, during the December 6 council session, that the long-defunct landfill isn't poisoned, and that a United States Army Corps of Engineers test proves it. “[The Corps of Engineers] say it’s safe and not toxic,” said Turner.

Boykins punctuated Turner’s point by clutching and waving a piece of paper that he said was the Corps of Engineers report. (The Press has asked for a copy of the document from Boykins’s office – we’ll update this post if we hear back.)

The concern for Sunnyside residents is understandable, given the recently published Sunnyside Neighborhood Plan, co-authored by the Texas Organizing Project and Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, that chronicles Sunnyside's history as the city's literal dumping grounds.

The 300-acre Holmes Road landfill began operation in the 1937 just south of the first subdivision in Sunnyside. A long-time resident recalls the first roads paved in Sunnyside by the city upon annexation were those leading to the Holmes Road city dump just south of the first subdivision in Sunnyside. An incinerator was added to the dump in 1967 with an expectation to burn up to 800 tons of garbage per day.

The landfill and incinerator had a profoundly adverse impact on the community. An 11 year old boy drowned in an unfenced, water filled hole at the dump, sparking protests by Sunnyside residents who wanted the dump and incinerator shut down. Residents also noted the neighborhood suffered from “flies, roaches, rats, and smells” due to the site. Sunnyside’s long-time residents recall the stigma attached to going to school while being from the neighborhood with the dump, as Holmes Road landfill was the only landfill inside the city limits during its operation. Pastors in Sunnyside led protests after witnessing other communities successfully shutting down compost sites elsewhere in the city. 

The report goes on to say that another “temporary” 78-acre rubbish site, the Reed Road landfill, opened in 1964 in Sunnyside.

Thomas C. Reed, the original landowner, was given an option to repurchase the land in five years at the original price. In 1969, the dump was expanded by 38 acres and the rights to repurchase were bought by the City, thereby solidifying its permanence.

After years of protests and arguments with city councilmen, the Holmes Road incinerator closed in 1971. The landfill closed to municipal waste in 1970, but continued to accept soil and demolition debris through 1977.

The Reed Road landfill closed in 1970, but left mounds of controversy behind. The former landowners of the Reed Road landfill, the Reeds, argued that the City left the landfill in inadequate condition, with mountains of improperly covered trash. The land was supposed to be graded and capped for future use. Moreover, smoldering underground fires lasted for months at the Reed Road landfill after its closing due to 20 feet of trash covering two gas wells on the site.
At City Hall last week, District J Council Member Mike Laster attempted to weigh in on the debate and came off sounding particularly tone-deaf.

“I don’t really know that part of the community at all, in fact,” said Laster, who then asked the speaker, Cynthia Pharms, a civil rights activist in Sunnyside who has been honored by the Texas Legislature for her community contributions, if the current location and the proposed site are far apart.

“Not a really long, far away?” asked Laster. “It’s walking distance, right?” (It’s about 2.3 miles, according to the Internet.)

Now, to even the able-bodied, walking two-plus miles in Houston, especially in July or August, might feel like running a full marathon. For a 90-year-old senior who spends his time at the current multi-service center, we imagine a 2.3-mile walk might feel like completing a triathlon. Or three.

Or, as Pharms succinctly said in her rebuttal to Laster: “No. It’s not walking distance.”

When asked what he would be doing with a new Sunnyside Multi-Service Center if his Houston City Council bid had been successful, McGee didn’t hesitate.

“First off, I would speak to the community about it. Second of all, I wouldn’t be putting it on an old dump.”

Update: Dec. 16, 11:15 a.m.:
Houston City Council Member for District D Dwight Boykins tells the Press that the proposed site for a new Sunnyside Multi-Service Center is, in fact, perfectly safe to build upon.

“There’s no toxic landfill where the Multi-Service Center building is going to be built,” says Boykins, who backs up his point with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study. “It’s an allegation. It’s completely false. It’s not true that we’re building on toxic land.”

Boykins adds that there’s going to be a community meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, December 19, at the current Sunnyside Multi-Service Center on Cullen to discuss the plans for the new building.

“We’re going to ask those who are interested in participating to help in the design of the building,” says Boykins. “I haven’t been including these loudmouths because they’re trying to be disruptive and unsupportive.”
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen