Monday, May 24, 2010

Development Along Rail Lines

This weekend there was an interesting article in my home town newspaper about the renovation of an old textile mill into offices, retail, and apartments. It is a deserted, historic old-building on the outskirts of the downtown area and it certainly deserves renovation; except that it has a major rail yard as a next door neighbor. The article makes a big thing about how lots of old mills across the South have been renovated along rail lines; rail lines were typically run near mills, or vice versa to provide shipping and receiving for those mills. The builder notes that the thick walls and insulated windows helps knock down the noise associated with rail lines so residents of the high-end loft type apartments typically put into these renovations don’t complain about the noise. That’s all good, as far as it goes. I just wonder if they are putting in airtight seals on the doors and window and auto shutdown mechanisms on the central heat and air. Oh, and more importantly chemical detectors for anhydrous ammonia and chlorine. You see this is not just a rail line alongside of the mill property, but it is a rail yard. This is where trains are taken apart, stored and formed up again. And some of the train cars coming through this particular yard contain chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia. I know, I’ve watched them come in and go out. And the risk for an accidental release of chemicals from rail cars is higher at rail yards than just along rail tracks. More handling means that there are more chances for accidents. To make matters worse, there is next to no security at this particular rail yard. There are surface streets that cross the tracks and vast stretches of the perimeter with no fencing. In fact the only fencing that I know exists was part of the old mill perimeter fence. This means that if terrorists were interested in gaining access to these high-risk rail cars, this would be a good place to do so. Add a bunch of high-rent apartments on the perimeter and it becomes a potential terrorist target. Do the real estate disclosure laws cover this situation? Does the developer understand the potential hazard? Did the Planning Advisory Commission take these factors into account when they recommended that the zoning be changed from light industrial to an Uptown (mixed residential and commercial) zoning? You make your guesses; I know what I think. The only saving grace is that it will not be poor folks living next to the tracks; it will be well to do folks. People with access to well paid lawyers. People with access to important politicians. People who will ask "Why wasn’t I told, warned or protected?" when the accident or attack exposes them to toxic inhalation chemicals. Maybe that is what it will take to get these rail yards moved out of city centers.

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