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The Green Deal: Highs and Lows

Council goes all the way with Trammell Crow

By Amy Smith, 8:34PM, Fri. May. 25, 2012

The former site of the Green Water Treatment Plant
The former site of the Green Water Treatment Plant
photo by Jana Birchum

After more than four hours of testimony from a cross-section of constituencies, the City Council voted 7-0 early Friday to sell the last piece of highly coveted city-owned Downtown property to Trammell Crow. The vote came shortly before 2am following a flurry of last-minute amendments to an agreement that's been in the making for four years.

Trammell Crow will pay the city $42.4* million over several years to transform the old site of the Green Water Treatment Plant into a $500 million development of office, housing, and retail along Lady Bird Lake.

The council's decision pleased some stakeholders and dissatisfied others.

The winners: Trammell Crow, large contractors, and (surprise, surprise) the Workers Defense Project and low-income housing advocates.

The Losers: The Heritage Tree Ordinance, tree advocates, and those who insist the city is giving up too much for too little.

Regardless, most everyone (with the exception of Associated General Contractors of Austin) agreed that the bright spot of the evening was the unshakable presence of the Workers Defense Project. The group's organized effort produced a large turnout of laborers, families and advocates who pleaded with council to hold Trammell Crow to a bullet-proof agreement of job safety and living-wage requirements.

WDP and Trammell Crow had been in negotiations for the past month, but the two sides were still deadlocked at the start of Thursday's hearing. "They wouldn't move," Gregorio Casar, business liasion for the WDP, said after the meeting. "So we had to bring the community out, and I think it was a really good show of how democracy can work."

WDP credited Council Member Laura Morrison for taking the lead on brokering a compromise from the dais. As a result, Trammell Crow agreed to let WDP monitor the welfare of workers at the construction site every pay period, and agreed to establish a goal of hiring 20% of its construction workers from bilingual training programs and paying them $16 an hour. Additionally, while WDP had initially sought a minimum wage of $12, it settled on a prevailing wage to avoid cutting into the pay of high-skilled trade workers.

The 11th-hour agreement was reached after much rapid back-and-forth discussion between council, staff, Trammell Crow, and WDP, which is not the best way to manage a major land sale.

"Given the hours of testimony, it is clear we have some work to do in ensuring these economic development deals incorporate our values," Morrison said. "We were able to gain some long-term on-site affordability and improve worker standards, but we also fell short of protecting the heritage trees." In the future, she added, "I'll be looking to set some better benchmarks to start with, so we don't have to do so much last-minute negotiation."

The workers' advocacy group was still in celebration mode Friday afternoon.

"We felt we really made history last night, but we're going to take it up higher and hold Trammell Crow responsible for creating good, safe jobs," Casaro said.

On the housing front: The new provisions call for 10 percent of the apartments to be designated for low-income renters for 40 years. If Trammell Crow decides instead to build condos for sale, it would give $5 per square foot of condo space to the city's low-income housing fund. Senior housing appears to be off the table.

Trees: With workers' lives on the line, trees were not the focal point of the evening. Nevertheless, there was a fair amount of push to save most if not all the seven trees (six heritage, one protected) that Trammell Crow wants to take down. If the trees go, the Heritage Tree Ordinance will be rendered useless, speakers said. Brad Rockwell suggested giving the development some additional height to avoid spreading into the trees' root zone. Mayor Lee Leffingwell countered that the height would disrupt the Capitol View Corridor. After the meeting, Rockwell produced a color-coded map that showed the Green site outside the corridor.

Council Member Kathie Tovo provided the last amendment of the evening, requiring the company to work with the city arborist on designing the project around the trees.

*This post has been revised to reflect the correct sale price of the property.

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