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Tuesday, February 24, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City works to smooth out new concrete ordinance

A code amendment that promises to change how the city handles after-hours concrete installation is moving forward.

The interim ordinance, passed by City Council in November, is set to expire March 31 without further Council intervention.

The city held a third stakeholder meeting Feb. 11, where neighbors and construction representatives met with staff about the issue. At last week’s Downtown Commission, Planning and Development Review Department director Greg Guernsey said there was consensus that light and sound mitigation plans were important, but both sides of the issue worried that a code amendment wouldn’t address all of the concerns.

Guernsey summed up the meeting, saying, “The residents that attended are not able to sleep, and the industry wants more certainty about what’s going to happen in the future.”

In the end, Downtown Commissioners decided that holding another meeting to get more input and hash out the details of the ordinance made sense. They hinted that they were headed in the direction of imposing a decibel limit from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Additionally, the new ordinance will need to address construction permits that have been grandfathered, and may contain a “review clause” that will allow stakeholders to weigh in on the ordinance after it has been implemented for a few months.

Commissioners also plan to convene a working group to address the concrete ordinance, which they have tabled until their March meeting.

Guernsey said they could probably talk about the issue “for months” trying to work out the ideal times and decibel levels. He said he had agreed to one more meeting, but pointed out that residents weren’t getting any sleep in the meantime.

Chair Joel Sher said he hopes that after one more meeting, the different stakeholders would be able to come closer to agreement on the details of the ordinance.

Attorney lex Jashinsky of Husch-Blackwell represented several downtown developers. She said that they supported allowing concrete pours at night with added decibel restrictions, and agreed with the suggestion that those be worked out further through the stakeholder group.

“Neighborhood representatives that were there very strongly said they just wanted to sleep,” said Guernsey. He noted that it wasn’t just noise from the concrete trucks that was a problem for downtown residents, but that they spent a long time discussing the “beep beep beep” noise required for trucks backing up.

“That was just as obnoxious, if not more, to some than the actual pour,” said Guernsey.

Kareem Badr, one of the owners of the Hideout Theatre, reiterated this viewpoint and said he worried that one small detail could obfuscate the larger problem of construction noise downtown.

“I personally don’t have a vendetta, or am offended by concrete,” said Badr. “The concept of it is great. The sound is associated with all aspects of construction. I don’t want that small problem that creates noise to be solved, leaving this vast array of other things that cause noise.

“We are building all of these buildings downtown to attract residents, and then potentially doing things to make it so they hate the choice that they made,” Badr continued.

Workers Defense Project representative Stephanie Gharakhanian reminded the commission that the issue also affects the city’s construction workforce. In particular, she emphasized the threat of heatstroke and heat exhaustion. She asked people to be mindful of the ability to work in the evening and night — when temperatures are generally cooler — would affect workers.

Winstead PC’s Carrie Rupprath spoke on behalf of Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association.

“I think we are all in agreement a flat-out prohibition on concrete pouring overnight is bad for Austin,” Rupprath said. “It’s going to increase costs, it will increase traffic and emissions, and more importantly, it will impact worker safety and job availability in Austin.”

Rupprath urged the commission to adopt a framework, and then work out the timing and decibel level issues.

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Downtown Commission: The Downtown Commission serves as a steward for the Downtown Austin Plan and advises the Austin City Council on policies and projects that impact downtown.

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