HOUSTON—LaVerne Stephens and Shelia Kraatz, a mother and daughter both old enough to remember shopping together during the Eisenhower Administration, recall visiting downtown Houston together to visit Foley’s.
“We’d buy anything we could get,” Stephens remembered. “Whenever they had a sale, we were here.”
Main Street has changed since then. Metro trains roll through a plaza decorated with fountains spraying around pedestrians. Foley’s sold out to Macy’s, then Macy’s sold its downtown store and parking garage.
Now a developer reportedly plans to put an office building on the former site of Houston’s venerable downtown department store. So demolition crews have begun the process of tearing down the vacant building. And that has caused a dirty problem.
“It’s just a lot of dust,” Kraatz complained. “Old smell dust. That’s it.”
Sidewalks around the old Foley’s building have been shrouded in clouds of dust kicked up by the demolition project. Bus passengers waiting on the sidewalk have been covering their mouths and trying to wave away what’s wafting out of the empty structure. Some of them openly wonder whether what their breathing is healthy.
“It gets really stuffy over here, and especially because there’s no air blowing,” said Chasity Evans, a downtown office worker waiting for a bus on an especially still afternoon. “And then, it’s really hot, too.”
Most of the building is enclosed by the brick and glass of the original structure or the plastic barriers erected by work crews. But in some places, the dusty interior is exposed, allowing dust to flow out onto the sidewalks. People standing at bus stops can’t escape it.
“And you got to inhale all that,” said one downtown worker. “Every time the buses come through, it’s dust. It’s dust coming out of here.”
She gestured toward a pile of demolition debris separated from the sidewalk by nothing more than a chain link fence.
"I guess your initial thought is, is there any asbestos in there?” said Wade Wayne, another pedestrian waiting on a bus. “Is there anything in there I shouldn’t be breathing?”
A supervisor for Cherry, the Houston-based demolition company, confirms there’s asbestos in the old building, but he says it’s contained to another part of the structure. None of the dust blowing onto the sidewalk has been contaminated with asbestos, he said.
“We try to eliminate the nuisance dust as quickly as we can,” said Mike Bokell, a divisional manager for Cherry. “And sometimes we’re not as successful as we’d like to be.”
After hearing the complaints, Bokell said crews are taking additional steps, using more barriers and more water to reduce the dust problem. Houston’s Public Works and Engineering Department said it would send inspectors to check out the dust problems at the site.