Note: A fair number of these links go to ProQuest. All City of Austin residents can use ProQuest with their library card number. You should already have an Austin Public Library card, but if you don’t, here’s the info on getting one.
McKalla had many neighbors in the city over the years, some of which I’ve ascertained from Austin American / Austin Statesman ads. Check those out on the other page. Trust me, it’s well worth the click.
Our story of 10414 McKalla Place begins in 1955, because it’s the earliest map I can find with some sort of confidence. It’s likely the entire region was dairy farms like the nearby Gracy dairy farm, but there’s nothing specific about McKalla. At this point, the City of Austin had 159,502 people – putting it about the same size as FC Dallas’ hometown of Frisco, TX today. The not-so-bustling city had just seen the completion of Interstate 35 north of 51st Street. The downtown section of the World’s Best Interstate would not be completed until 1962, seven years later.
In 1955, the Missouri Pacific Railroad ran along the western side of the city. If that name sounds oddly familiar, that’s because the same railroad line runs between the central core lanes of the MoPac Expressway – and gives the road its name. The stretch of the MoPac Expressway near McKalla Place today is actually slightly west of the still-operational rail line, running just behind the Home Depot on MoPac and Braker Lane. Today, the rail line is owned by Union Pacific, who acquired the railroad in 1982.
Enough about MoPac, though (apologies @EvilMopacATX), because the more interesting railroad to our story is actually the one marked with a blue dot – the Southern Pacific line. That line goes from East Austin all the way to Cedar Park and Leander.
Sound familiar? That’s the exact definition of Capital Metro’s MetroRail Red Line. In fact, through some wonderful web of links, it appears that the entire Southern Railroad line from Llano to Giddings was purchased by the City of Austin for the bargin-basement price of $9.3 million in 1985 ($22.2m-ish in 2018 dollars). Here’s a story by the Austin Chronicle on the topic from 1999, though note for some really dumb reason, they use a map with with east to the top of the image.
Now, to the blue dot. That, I suspect, is about where 10414 McKalla Place is today. In this rudimentary image, you can see where modern-day Burnet Road and Lamar Boulevard are. The biggest giveaway? The “Balcones Research Center”, which is known today as the J.J. Pickle Research Campus.
The railroad station marked in this 1955 map is not Kramer Station, and it’s much closer to Capital Metro’s North Operations facility on Old McNeil Road.
The Reichhold Era Begins
The development of the 23.5 acre property as a chemical manufacturing plant begins in 1956, according to this city report. In 1957, the plant was opened by Specialty Chemicals, which was then purchased by Reichhold in 1959. The original address was listed as 2601 Reichhold Road, which is no longer an active street. Reichhold Road is currently the east-west road on the property south of the Discount Tire, which is labeled as the entrance to the City of Austin’s North Service Center.
Throughout history, Reichhold and the Austin media use several different addresses, as illustrated in this announcement about the acquisition in the July 8, 1959 Austin Statesman – this one uses McNeil Road. The bits and pieces of McNeil Road along Burnet near Research Blvd today are referred to as ‘Old McNeil Road,’ so it stands to reason this was probably the road they were referring to.
In 1959, the methyl ethyl ketone peroxide plant was built, and in 1962, the benzoyl peroxide facility was opened.
Reichhold and Austin
Reichhold Chemicals Inc, was a company that went public in 1955. They used the Specialty Chemicals Division plant to produced organic peroxides on the site, which are used in plastic and fiberglass manufacturing.
Their primary customer was likely Glastron Boat Company, an Austin-based fiberglass boat manufacturing company. Glastron’s huge facility was located just a few blocks south of the McKalla tract at 9108 Reid Road, which would put its manufacturing facility where Austin Beerworks is today. Glastron had a huge facility – property listings had them with most of the buildings off Industrial Terrace.
A full section special on Glastron in the June 26, 1965 issue of the Austin American-Statesman notes that 5,000 boats were made by the 350 employees at the Glastron facility in 1964.
This is a really cool 1966 aerial picture of the site, found in the 2004 Hazard Management Plan. You can clearly see Rutland Drive to the south, and Burnet Rd. to the west. Braker Lane isn’t built in this view – and wouldn’t be until the late 1980s.
The 1970s: Environmental Issues
At the beginning of the decade, a new facility opened to produce tert-butyl perbenzoate on the site. However, the rest of the decade was not quite as rosy, and Reichhold’s reputation does not hold up very well 40 years later.
A March 16, 1970 article in the Statesman brings up the first such interaction with the state authorities for chemical mismanagement. The company was hauled before the Texas Water Quality Board for alleged dumping of waste into Walnut Creek from the plant, which the board said had been going on since November 1966. Reichhold promised to use on-site retaining ponds for storage until the city completed work on a sewer main adjacent to the site. At the time, the plant was still outside the city of Austin, and, as noted in the article, the city had no agreement with Reichhold to use the sewer main.
In 1976, the Texas Water Quality Board cites the facility due to seepage from the onsite retention ponds. The 2004 report suggests that two of the ponds may have been closed in response.
A March 1977 classified ad in the Statesman notes the need for a lab technician at Reichhold – but note that the site was off Burnet, south of the rail spur, in the building housing the sporting goods store today.
The Texas Department of Water Resources performed a site inspection in October 1978, finding that leachate (a very fancy word for water) is being discharged in to the Little Walnut Creek. Reichhold submits a plan to close all the retention ponds.
A November 2, 1979 story in the Austin American-Statesman notes that the House Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations considered the site a chemical waste dump. The plant manager at the time told the Statesman that “…it’s not dumped there, only stored until we have a truckload to carry off,” and that about 50-60 55 gallon drums of contaminated glycols and plasticizers were on site at the time. The Statesman piece notes the chemicals were last hauled to a state-regulated dump site near Corpus Christi in 1976.
By the end of the decade, the Reichhold plant had 35 employees.
Vapors, Fire, and Explosions: The Final Decade
Reichhold’s commitment to safety seems to be a bit of an issue, and it would inevitably cause the plant to close. On four separate occasions, newspaper reports have the Austin Fire Department being called to the site for a serious incident:
- August 7, 1976: Four AFD units responded to a 3pm report of an explosion at the site. It turned out to be only a fire that had burned itself out by the time the units arrived. The cause was due to benzoyl peroxide mixing with “unchecked water loss from the plant’s wastewater pond.”
- October 29, 1976: Five AFD units responded to a 1:30am fire triggered by an explosion on the site. The fire burned for several hours, releasing noxious gas.
- October 19, 1977: Five AFD units rushed to the plant following reports of smoke. There was no smoke, merely a “slightly toxic” vapor from a chemical used on-site. The chemical is supposed to stay liquid, according to the district fire chief, but was vaporized when the room it was being stored in got abnormally hot.
- December 1, 1979: An explosion shortly before 5pm caused a 20 minute fire at a mixing building on site.
This aerial is from 1984. You can see a significant amount of development in the surrounding area, including the warehouses for K1 Speed and Adlebert’s Brewery. In fact, most of the buildings visible here still stand today. Still missing? Braker Lane.
The final shoe dropped on February 11, 1985, when an explosion at the methyl ethyl ketone peroxide plant, and Reichhold decided it was no longer economically feasible to continue operations on the site. Reichhold notified the Texas Department of Water Resources its intent to close plant 17 days later with its closure plan. The Texas Water Commission issued a notice of closure in December 1985.
Sale to City of Austin
Reichhold was acquired by Japanese chemical company Dainippon Ink and Chemicals (DIC) in 1987, and, unable to find a private buyer, the City of Austin purchased the site for $1.4 million in October 1995.
Originally intended as Austin Water Utility’s North Service Center, a November 2003 explosion during construction halted the service center plans. During the investigation, the City of Austin discovered that 500 pounds of 98% concentrated benzoyl peroxide still buried on the site.
The city was forced to cleanup the site, and more than a decade of lawsuits ensued, with the city claiming the property was not as described in the purchase. The city prevailed and received $3.6 million from DIC, and, in 2005, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signed off on the cleanup.
A Vacant Lot By Any Other Name
The land has sat vacant since. It’s unclear why the city didn’t end up building the North Service Center on the site as planned after the cleanup had completed. Since then, city proposals for an RV park were met with resistance by neighborhood groups such as the Gracywoods Neighborhood Association.
In 2014, the City of Austin identified the facility, then valued between $5.5 million and $7 million, as a target for affordable housing. No action seems to have been taken by Council following that.
In 2016, Capella Capital Partners started looking into possibilities on the site, which is next to other property they purchased shortly before that. The city came back and told Capella a 99-year lease on the site would be equivalent to a sale, and would need to go through a Request for Proposal (RFP). No RFP was ever submitted or considered by City Council.
An extensive survey was completed by Terracon in Februrary 2017, which deemed the site cleaned up adequately, and the site would be suitable for residential usage. Terracon requested TCEQ concurrence on their findings, but there is no confirmation either way, much less if it is required or a normal ask.
And that’s about where we stand today. No formal offer has ever been made or considered on the site since the cleanup of the site and subsequent lawsuit by the city. It is still used, to some extent, by the Austin Water Utility, but appears limited exclusively to storage.
Reichhold job ad: Classified ad 5 — no title. (1977, Mar 08). The Austin American Statesman (1973-1987) Retrieved from https://www.austinlibrary.com:8443/login?url=https://www.austinlibrary.com:2129/docview/1808765882?accountid=7451
Reichhold supplier ad: Display ad 60 — no title. (1965, Jun 26). The Austin Statesman (1921-1973) Retrieved from https://www.austinlibrary.com:8443/login?url=https://www.austinlibrary.com:2129/docview/1521881277?accountid=7451