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Photo by Workers Defense Action Fund

Workers Defense asks for construction standards on Statesman PUD

Wednesday, July 27, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

In anticipation of one of Austin’s next big construction projects, advocacy group Workers Defense Project demanded Tuesday morning that the redevelopment of the former Austin American-Statesman site at 305 S. Congress Ave. lead to safe and well-compensated construction jobs as well as on-site affordable housing.

“This is a big investment that will be many, many years and thousands of construction jobs,” Emily Timm, co-executive director of Workers Defense Project, said. “And we can’t miss this opportunity to make sure that Better Builder Standards and affordable housing are included in this project.”

The demands are among a litany of public benefits, including parkland, affordable housing and infrastructure, that various stakeholders want developer Endeavor Real Estate to provide. As projected costs for the project escalate, Endeavor has said it is struggling to make the various requests work financially – a claim backed up by a third-party report last week. 

The project is seeking Planned Unit Development zoning in order to build several towers with a mix of residential, office, hotel, and retail space on the 19-acre site on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake. City Council already approved the PUD on first reading in April, leaving two more votes until final approval. The PUD zoning will enshrine public benefits on-site into law.

Better Builder Standards, a program created by Workers Defense, includes “a living wage, OSHA-certified safety training, goals to hire from apprenticeship programs, workers’ compensation and independent Better Builder certified on-site monitoring,” according to a press release. Living wage, in this case, is pegged to the minimum wage in city government, which is currently $15 per hour. 

Workers Defense members said on-site independent monitoring of labor practices is key to ensure workers are treated fairly. “We know that worker standards are only as strong as the paper they’re written on if you don’t have a robust enforcement mechanism,” Timm said.

Richard Suttle, representing the development team, told the Austin Monitor that they agree in theory to demands around fair labor practices and compensation for construction workers but can’t yet agree to Build Better Standards because of how independent monitoring works in the program.

“What we’re having trouble with,” Suttle said, “is the Better Builder program is administered by a sole source – just Workers Defense …. On a project this size and this many years out, we can’t go sole source on an independent monitor.”

Workers Defense says it is still in talks with the development team to secure the benefits the group demands.

The group also demanded many more units be set aside as affordable than what is currently proposed – 20 percent instead of the proposed 4 percent. “Workers aren’t able to live in the city that they are building every single day,” Timm said. The development team has said anything higher than 4 percent could make the project financially unfeasible.

The PUD, which has taken several years to reach Council, will likely be postponed further this week. Council was scheduled to hear the case on second reading Thursday but will now push that vote back to August in response to a postponement request from neighborhood group South River City Citizens.

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