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Environmental Board supports development at former tank farm site

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Development on a salvaged East Austin tank farm won unanimous support from the Environmental Board last week.


The board voted 4-0 to approve the environmental aspects of the Planned Unit Development. Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Members Jennifer Walker and Robin Gary were absent. The board had no additional requests or changes to the proposal.


“We propose no board conditions,” said Board Member Bob Anderson. “My rationale is the superior environmental elements that have been detailed, including water quality, invasive plant removal, and restoration methods of the site from a former hydrocarbon storage site are commendable.”


The project will transform a portion of what has historically been known as the “East Austin Tank Farms” at 1141 Shady Lane. It is the first project to use the tank farm land for development.


The 52-acre tank farm was closed in 1993 after years of protests by East Austin residents over the environmental degradation at the gasoline storage site brought a lawsuit by Travis County officials. The suit was settled by a consortium of oil companies who owned facilities at the site.


Developers are requesting Planned Unit Development zoning for the project, which is on just over 24 acres of land. When complete, ThinkEAST will be a mix of residential and commercial uses, with space for parkland, artist studios and housing. The project will include affordable housing options, which city planner Sherri Siwaitis noted is a high priority for both the neighborhood and the city.


Additionally, developers promise a minimum of 37 percent open space and 1.3 acres of parkland dedication, which will allow northern access to Govalle Park for the first time.


Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak explained that the tank farms were one of the first environmental projects that he worked on at the beginning of his career.


“I strongly recommend this project. I think it’s great, and I hope we see some more in the near future,” said Lesniak.


The land was once home to petroleum storage tanks, and under enforcement by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality until 2007. Lesniak explained that after thousands of hours personally spent on remediation, which is complete, the site is now “extremely low risk from a contaminant standpoint.”


Lesniak allowed that it was possible, if unlikely, that pockets of contamination could be encountered during construction. Because of this, developers are including a health and safety plan as part of their management.


Robert Summers, is one of the land owners and developers of ThinkEAST. He called the project “historic,” noting that in their initial presentation to City Council, they had received “overwhelmingly positive” responses about the project.


Summers cited the views of Council Member Mike Martinez, saying, “If there ever was such a thing as a good PUD, this one is it.”


“We’re seeking a PUD because this is a large, complicated tract. We need unified control for this project,” said Summers. “It will be a phased project over many, many years. It’s a complex project. We have an unfinished roadway project through the middle of it, we have this environmental history to deal with, and that’s why we need a PUD.”


“We’re not here to get any development bonuses. We won’t be asking for any. No height, no variances whatsoever. We’re not here to avoid any environmental regulations, except for this exception on one heritage tree,” said Summers.


In conjunction with the zoning change, developers are asking for permission to remove a 30” heritage pecan tree from the site. Due to the tree’s poor health, its removal is supported by staff and the environmental board.


“We didn’t try to take an ugly picture of this tree. You can’t take a good picture of this tree. It’s been abused,” said Summers. “It’s been trimmed, because of power lines. It’s sick.”


Due to the condition of the tree, the city is asking for 150 percent mitigation to compensate for its removal, though they can ask for up to 300 percent under code. Though that works out to 45 inches of tree, the developers are proposing 53 four-inch trees instead, which is 167 inches beyond what would be required by the city.


“This has been a historic community project and a priority for the neighborhood for well over 20 years. We are excited to be a part of it,” said Summers.

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