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Despite unknowns, Big Tex clears zoning commission

Real-estate developer James Lifshutz wants the City to green-light his 7-acre, $20 million development near the Blue Star Art Complex, but he refuses to prove to the public that the site isn’t contaminated with asbestos. The lack of evidence didn’t stop the City Zoning Commission last week from approving by an 8-2 vote a zoning change that could allow him to build 150 apartments and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.

The property was zoned industrial, meaning it could be used for an animal-processing plant or salvage yard. Now it is zoned multi-family and commercial, pending City Council approval on February 9.

The Big Tex Grain Co. site is about to be developed into commercial/retail and residential living provided the City Council approves a rezoning request set to be heard February 9. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

From the 1960s to the 1980s, W.R. Grace Co. processed 104,000 tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite through its San Antonio plant, and the federal government indicted several company officers for covering up shipments of the material from a Montana mine. W.R. Grace went out of business in 1989.

Lifshutz says he hired a consulting firm to test the site and that he has a report stating the building in question isn’t contaminated. But he refused to show the study to the Current — or to anyone, he said, except to “trained professionals who know what they are reading.” Although the feds are investigating 28 of 200 facilities nationwide, Lifshutz says “that building is not one of them.”

Lifshutz says he has shown the study to City Environmental Services Manager David Newman, who verified that he has seen it. “The results don’t raise a red flag,” said Newman, adding that the data supports EPA results.

What results Newman is referring to is unclear. As reported in the Current last May `“Nixing Big Tex,” May 12-18, 2005`, Environmental Protection Agency documents stated that the previous site owner, Richard Galloway of Big Tex, refused to allow EPA investigators on the property during a February 24, 2000, visit. “Mr Galloway indicated that silos may remain on site and some material may remain on site. He was very concerned with the liability his company may incur as they were considering selling the property.”

Galloway then sold the property to Lifshutz in 2001.

Newman assured the Zoning Commission that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has reviewed an environmental assessment performed by a previous owner. “This is an issue between the property owner and the state,” Newman said.

However, a TCEQ spokesperson said Lifshutz, as the current owner, has no contamination-abatement plan on file at the agency. Nor has Lifshutz filed a Phase I and Phase II environmental report, although, the spokesperson said, “We understand the owner has them.”

Zoning Commissioners Henry Avila and Eigenio Rodriguez voted against the zoning change, saying that those who are protesting the rezone are “concerned for the health and safety of themselves and their community.”

“Would you live there?” Avila asked Newman.

“I feel comfortable with the TCEQ commitment,” Newman replied. “I live in a 40-year-old home with asbestos `insulation` and I feel comfortable. There is no environmental issue on this property.”

However, after Lifshutz admonished the Commission to decide on the zoning issue, he said, “I will do what is needed no matter the cost to address environmental issues, period. No one is more concerned than I.

I have a very acute financial interest that I intend to protect.”

Neighborhood resident Santiago Escobedo told the commissioners the project, which would eventually be a 13-acre arts and entertainment complex, “was a great plan, but this is exposing workers to contamination. This is a slow-moving bullet and we have to live with this mess. Deny this and let him take it to the City Council.”

Yet not everyone opposed the project. The City Planning Office reported that of 32 re-zoning notices that were mailed to neighbors of the Big Tex property, it received just two in opposition and nine in favor. In addition, the City received no comment from neither the King William Neighborhood Association nor the Lone Star neighborhood.

Real-estate agent Julie Hooper, the sales agent for another Lifshutz project, the King William Townhomes, who also owns property nearby at the intersections of South Flores, Cevallos, and Nogalitos streets, lauded Lifshutz’ plan to redevelop the Big Tex site. “I can’t think of a better use of this property.”

Patrick Shearer, who also owns property in the Lone Star Neighborhood and who specializes in buildling metal structures characterized by Blue Star and Big Tex, said he was “thrilled development is coming to this side of the tracks. Its light density will add a lot to the neighborhood, and it would boost economic development.”

If City Council approves the zoning, Lifshutz says he could begin construction by the end of 2006, and Blue Star South could be ready for business 12 to 15 months later. “I’m one of the good guys. If I lived across the river, I would throw my arms around the developer and kiss him on both cheeks. If I lived across the river I would want to see it developed.”

By Michael Cary

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