A rezoning request for property at Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard was placed on hold Jan. 24 following debate over the potential environmental contamination at the site located where East Austin's toxic tank farm once operated.

The zoning case, brought by V&S Enterprises Vice President Patrick Oliver, centers on 9.61 acres of land spread across two tracts at 1005 Springdale Road and 1113 Airport Blvd. The property is now home to a car dealership and the Lift ATX gym. The request from V&S would strip away two conditions set in the late 1990s: a cap on daily vehicle trips allowed on the property and a ban on vehicular access off of Airport.

City staff and members of the Austin Planning Commission considering the case Jan. 24 found no issues with the baseline request since modern traffic reviews by the Austin Transportation Department would be required ahead of a potential redevelopment of the property. However, staff and commissioners shared their apprehensions over allowing the site to retain its mixed-use zoning designation—a label that could allow residential additions on the environmentally sensitive site.

The “Springdale Commercial” tracts are part of the former 50-acre tank farm complex that was used by several major petroleum companies through the 1900s to store much of Austin's gas supply. Contamination from the hazardous facility was found to have caused “acute and chronic health issues” for many East Austin residents over decades, according to the city, before community action eventually led the facility to be decommissioned and the site remediated. However, that environmental remediation work was done only to commercial—not residential—standards.

The tank farm and legacy of environmental racism on the east side became the center of conversations about the nearly 900,000-square-foot Springdale Green development next door. Springdale Green is now nearing completion but received broad opposition from the community in 2021 before plans were ultimately approved. The project, among the largest new developments in East Austin, includes a pair of six-story office towers and restored open space.

Springdale Commercial reviewed

During the January planning meeting, agent Alice Glasco asked commissioners to consider V&S's rezoning appeal to strike the decades-old traffic restrictions from the Springdale Commercial tracts. She also said rejecting the case based on past review by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and concerns over the existing mixed-use entitlement would be an unprecedented planning decision.

“We would be the only property that I know of for as long as I’ve worked in the city, as a city planner and as a consultant, where you are rolling back zoning. ... Why should we be treated unfairly in comparison to the rest of the city where other issues that relate to environmental assessments occur administratively and they’re taken care of in that manner?" Glasco said.

Glasco and geologist Dan Airey said the TCEQ's past determination that the property is unsuitable for residential construction could have been made in error. Airey said he believes the remediation process was inappropriately closed and that the limitation was put in place given extra costs associated with reviewing the site for residential standards rather than actual hazardous conditions.

“A situation that was closed in the mid-2000s, period, it’s going to be nothing but better now because the use of the property does not support hydrocarbons at all. It’s a used car lot and a workout facility. So the levels will get better over time,” he said.

Several petrochemical companies used the East Austin property for fuel storage that was later found to affect area residents' health. (Courtesy city of Austin)

Commissioners were generally hesitant to move forward and questioned the V&S team about the concerns over allowing residents on the site if a new project moves forward there.

“The applicant is asking us not to treat this property any different than any other property. But this property is very different than any other property because it used to hold almost all of the petroleum storage for the entire city of Austin and has a very well-documented history of causing health issues because of that environmental contamination,” Commissioner Grayson Cox said. “We have pretty clear historic record showing that residential was not advised for this property because of that exact reason.”

Heather Chaffin, the city's case manager for the rezoning, also noted the city could be liable for future issues associated with placing housing on the site if the move conflicts with state-level environmental reviews.

“We’re not comfortable with supporting residential on this site,” she said. “The history of the area is one of the major things that’s happened in the last few decades here in Austin, and I think it’s with an abundance of caution to wait until the proper studies and analyses have been done for allowing residential via zoning.”

After some deliberation, the commission voted 8-2 to postpone consideration of the case until March. However, any further action could be pushed off until new environmental analysis takes place.

Commissioners Todd Shaw and Jennifer Mushtalter voted against given their view that the zoning issue should not be considered at all given potential risks at the site.

“I think this should’ve been cleared up before it ever came in. It’s a pretty big issue, and that needed to be handled before asking for this request," Mushtaler said. "I don’t think it’s appropriate, and I don’t want to see them back until it’s taken care of.”

In an email, a TCEQ spokesperson said the agency is not working on an update to remediation conditions.

“The former Star Enterprises site achieved closure under TCEQ’s commercial/industrial cleanup standards. The TCEQ received a request to review the prior closure to determine whether the site would be appropriate for residential land use. The TCEQ advised that an updated Affected Property Assessment Report (APAR) would be needed to compare current site conditions against TCEQ’s residential cleanup standards. The TCEQ has not received the APAR and was recently informed that the parties are no longer contemplating a change in land use,” the spokesperson said.