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Then There's This: Council's Version of Sine Die

A packed agenda touches on affordability, wages, waivers, and more

By Amy Smith, Fri., June 28, 2013

Construction workers and members of the Workers Defense Project sign an oversized letter stating their objections to proposed changes to a prevailing wage ordinance that JW Marriott developer White Lodging agreed to in exchange for $3.8 million in fee waivers.
Construction workers and members of the Workers Defense Project sign an oversized letter stating their objections to proposed changes to a prevailing wage ordinance that JW Marriott developer White Lodging agreed to in exchange for $3.8 million in fee waivers.
Courtesy of Jason Cato

Council members have a hard act to follow today after Tuesday's riveting performance down at the Capitol, but at least they're not working against a clock spinning toward midnight. Barring a postponement of one or two of the weightier items anchoring the agenda, City Council may well be working into the wee hours to wrap up business before setting off on their summer break. In fact, at least one contentious issue – a requested zoning change for a proposed 96-foot condo at Lamar and Riverside (i.e., the "Taco PUD") – has already been punted to Council's next meeting on Aug. 8.

Also, some of the sticking points over a proposed zoning change for an affordable housing complex appear to have been resolved in advance of today's meeting. The proposal (Item 94) would allow for greater density on Oak Creek Village, a HUD-backed multi- family complex in South Austin's Bouldin Creek neighborhood. The property owner agreed to keep 143 units affordable while adding on market-rate units on the rest of the Wilson Street property.

On a related affordability matter, Council will take public testimony and consider a streamlined Downtown Density Bonus Program (Item 105) in which developers seeking zoning changes would have to contribute more toward affordable housing benefits (see "Exiled From Main Street").

Other highlights:

A Deal Is a Deal?

City Manager Marc Ott has asked Council to revisit a 2011 prevailing wage ordinance in an attempt to settle a months-long wage dispute between construction workers and Downtown hotel developer White Lodging Services (Item 27). Council agreed to waive $3.8 million in development fees for the construction of the high-end JW Marriott at Third and Congress. In exchange, White Lodging agreed, as part of a late amendment to the fee deal, to comply with the city's prevailing wage policy. The agreement stipulated that if White Lodging fails to comply with the wage plan, it must reimburse fees already waived and forego the remaining amount (see "City Cuts Fee Waivers to Marriott Builder," June 21). Shortly after Council approved the agreement, however, White Lodging ran the proposed wage numbers and decided that those rates would be cost-prohibitive. They submitted an alternative payroll plan to then Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, who signed off on it without alerting Council. As Ott noted in a memo to Council last week, "there [has] been some misrepresentation of the city's prevailing wage policy including most notably the approval by [Gar­za] of an alternate path to compliance ..." That path – resulting in less pay as well as job misclassification for some workers – came to light early this year when worker complaints were filed with the city. Staff investigated and found White Lodging was in fact out of compliance. The tug-of-war continued until June 14, when Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes notified White Lodging that the city was halting fee waivers on the project.

Construction workers – represented by advocacy group Workers Defense Project, which staged a demonstration in front of the Marriott project Tues­day night – say the builders should stick to what they agreed to in writing; they're expected to make a showing in chambers when Council considers what to do with the mess. (The item is listed on the consent agenda but will almost certainly be pulled for discussion.) Ott laid out four options, including continuing to enforce the existing ordinance, but did not make a recommendation. As of now, there are two interpretations of "a deal is a deal" that the Council and White Lodging struck in 2011: Either the Council should stick with the deal they made with the construction workers, or the one Garza made with the developer.

Lake Austin and SOS

Council Members Kathie Tovo and Bill Spelman are wading into murky waters of rather lax Lake Austin development regs with a resolution (Item 75) directing the city manager to do what a task force failed to do: come up with recommendations for preserving existing environmental protections for properties within 1,000 feet of the shoreline. The now-dissolved Lake Austin Task Force failed to reach a required unanimous agreement on recommendations involving this section of the Colorado River, home to some of the city's priciest mansions.

And finally, there's a proposal to make "site-specific" amendments to help a developer get around restrictions in the Save Our Springs Ordinance on what's known as the Garza Tract near William Cannon and MoPac. The carrot for Council is that the developer would provide an easement for the Violet Crown Trail and funding for a nearby trailhead. Rest assured not all of them will bite.


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