Many Dallas businesses haven’t been around in a long time, but environmental detectives have to peer into the city’s history to find out if they left pollution problems behind.
There’s not a lot to look at on the northwest corner of Live Oak and Cantegral streets.
The three-block area just east of downtown Dallas is a landscape of vacant lots.
In decades past, there used to be a gasoline station, printing plant, brake repair business and auto body shop on the property. And that’s turned out to be a problem for investors who are trying to sell the site of the long-planned City Lights project.
Worries about environmental contamination caused by long-gone businesses on the land have slowed a pending sale.
Such pollution issues are common on urban properties in Dallas and across the country.
“It’s like walking through an old graveyard — you never know what’s there,” said Matt Malouf, who heads the partnership that owns the City Lights property. “It takes quite an effort to find what’s there.”
To protect investors and turn up potential environmental issues, an industry of urban detectives has grown up to research real estate and track down pollution problems buried in the past.
“What we do is dig into the history to try and find out what was there,” said Scott Bass of Dallas’ Envirophase Inc. “Once you buy the property, you take responsibility for it.
“We do a lot of work with developers and investors. It can be a challenge when you have to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”
The bad news could be leaky underground gasoline tanks from a station torn down years before, cleaning solvents that leaked into the ground from a long-gone industrial business or dry cleaning chemicals dumped by a corner laundry that went out of business decades ago.
“It’s one of the biggest hindrances to some of these downtown properties,” Bass said.
Clues from maps
Instead of a time machine, Bass and other environmental investigators use century-old maps, old city directories and even historic aerial photos to uncover previous uses of properties.
“In the mid-1930s was when the government first started doing flyovers and taking photos,” Bass said. “It helps you on bigger tracts of land if you are trying to figure out if, say, there was a dump on there.”
Old Sanborn Co. maps that were used by the fire insurance industry to identify buildings chronicle business uses of local properties stretching from the 1890s to the 1970s, Bass said.
“My search begins with the Sanborn maps,” Bass said. “Some of the old maps are very well defined.”
An 1885 Sanborn map shows a cotton gin sitting near where the Dallas Convention Center now stands. A couple of blocks away were a “steam laundry” and an “asphaltum street paving company.”
Just north of the Omni Dallas Hotel was the Dallas Vinegar Works. And where the George L. Allen Sr. Courts Building now stands was the Star Wagon Yard.
Unlike urban locations in the center city, Bass said, properties he examines out in the far burbs are usually not as colorful. Cotton fields and sorghum patches are less likely to result in environmental issues.
“There was never anything there,” he said.
Analyzing the situation
If Bass’ “phase one” environmental assessment turns up no red flags, the property buyer or developer can be assured.
When past questionable business histories turn up, it’s time for a “phase two” analysis that includes soil and water samples.
It’s the only way to determine just how serious the potential pollution is, Bass said.
Some environmental damage is almost a given in the heart of a major city.
“It’s common in downtown Dallas that you have groundwater contamination all over,” said broker Newt Walker. “In the old days, this was not an issue.
“But now with everybody being green, it’s a hot topic.”
Walker said that he’s working on the sale of two Dallas warehouses and a parking lot that require soil and water samples.
“We found that one of the buildings once had a tool supply company in it,” he said. “We have to do this to know what we are buying.
“No lender is going to finance it unless you figure this stuff out.”
That’s because the possible liability from environmental litigation could far outstrip any profits from the real estate deal.
And you can’t tell much by just eyeballing the property.
“On Ross Avenue at Haskell there used to be a service station on a site we have under contract,” said broker Mike Turner of Elmer J. Turner Co. “It was operating until the 1950s.
“We are going to have to see what the groundwater looks like. There is no record of the tanks being left in the ground, but we don’t know yet.”
Cleaners not so clean
Turner said that former dry cleaner locations are “a real big deal” if the toxic chemicals once used soaked into the ground.
“At the old Fishburn’s Cleaning and Laundry property on Ross Avenue, they found naphtha tanks and gasoline tanks, and there was an old water well,” he said.
If the environmental tests show contamination from past property owners, a land buyer may opt for cleanup or get a special designation for the property that acknowledges the pollution and restricts use of the groundwater.
“If you find something that is a recognized environmental issue, you have to determine if it’s impacting the site and if you exceed permissible state levels,” said John Slavich, a partner in the Dallas environmental law firm of Guida, Slavich & Flores PC.
Skipping no steps
“If you skip any of the steps, you could get some unpleasant surprises.”
Slavich said some Dallas properties close to downtown could have been used for dumping industrial waste or were filled in with debris from demolished buildings that contain asbestos and lead.
“Back then, they carted that stuff out to the edge of town and dumped it,” he said. “The edge of town is now the other side of Woodall Rodgers Freeway.
“You look at an old map from the 1920s and you’ll see that Dallas was a very different place.”