Then There's This: Salvaging a Middle Ground
Once a scrap yard, always a scrap yard?
A scruffy section of South Congress running between William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane bears the Fifties-era look of a long, sleepy stretch of road that time and city planners forgot. An assortment of salvage yards and repair shops are the dominant theme of the quiet strip, but the Capital Area Food Bank warehouse and the venerable Beverly's Biker Bar (now the Red Shed Tavern) also make their homes here against a backdrop of verdant, untamed landscape – raw land that will no doubt be developed some day.
A jarring contrast to this motley mix lies just down the road at the Slaughter/South Congress intersection – the massive, sprawling Southpark Meadows retail center, which is nearly always bustling with shoppers and restaurantgoers navigating a slightly terrifying parking lot. These two worlds – the retail center and the salvage yards – and the projected growth demands of this quadrant of the city generated a lengthy and lively discussion at the March 20 meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission.
At issue was a zoning request made by Capital City Salvage to upzone its property from what is currently a "legal non-conforming use" to "light industrial." The salvage yard is under the new ownership of Chicago-based LKQ, which refers to its line of work as a "green" business because it employs a cleaner, safer method of recycling automobiles and trucks. ZAP voted against the zoning request, and the matter now moves to City Council for consideration on April 26.
Several ZAP commissioners were admittedly conflicted about rejecting a request that would let LKQ, a publicly traded company whose reported 2011 revenues topped $3 billion, upgrade its site with state-of-the-art technology to capture vehicle fluids, toxins, and other pollutants that, over several decades in the pre-LKQ days, seeped into the soil and nearby Boggy Creek.
The vote was 5-1-1, with Cynthia Banks voting against the motion to reject the rezoning, and Sandy Baldridge abstaining. "Junkyards are not some place I used to play in, [and] I doubt that I will play there in my retirement," Baldridge noted, but she said she couldn't consciously deny a business the right to upgrade its facilities "with progress of technology."
Moments before the vote was called, Vice Chair Patricia Seeger even declared herself uncertain, although she ultimately joined the majority. On one hand, she said, "We're holding the new person to the sins of the last person ... a terrible steward of the land." While she applauded LKQ's plans for the site, she said the upgrade in zoning would conflict with the city's Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.
Jason Meeker offered that he practically grew up in junkyards – "that's where I learned how to work on cars." But while salvage yards are an important industry, he acknowledged, "the elephant in the room" in his view was the previous owner's "egregious, over-the-top, unexplainable removal of trees" from the property, making it impossible for him to cast a vote favorable to the salvage yard.
Indeed, the previous business owner, Rob Ormand, who still controls the property, landed in hot water with the city in early 2010 for illegally cutting down 344 trees, including 13 protected ones. The land massacre turned extensive tree canopy into barren earth covered with thousands of junk cars. The city ordered a mitigation plan for the property with soil cleanup and the planting of new trees, but many of those were lost in last year's drought (see "City Takes Business To Task Over Cleared Trees," Feb. 5, 2010). LKQ manager Johnny Stevens said he's continuing to mitigate the property and making cosmetic improvements.
LKQ's vows to be good land stewards did not sufficiently satisfy ZAP Chair Betty Baker, who echoed Meeker's sentiments. The long-serving commissioner preceded her vote to deny the request with a brief discourse on zoning. "We are not zoning [LKQ]; we are not zoning Capital City Salvage. We are zoning dirt. Period." Pointing out that "zoning lasts longer than most marriages," Baker questioned the wisdom of industrial zoning on a main artery into the city.
Turning on Baldridge's question of whether a zoning denial could translate to a "taking," Baker said, "We're not shutting a business down – whenever LKQ bought this business, it was incumbent on them as purchasers to know the facts, to know the problems. I don't mean to do a grandstand on it, but to make this better... and to make it palatable... it will probably be easier to diaper that elephant."
Let's see if the Council will one-up ZAP on the salvage-yard debate.