Two of the city's biggest stakeholders are at odds over whether to allow overnight concrete pouring at downtown Austin construction sites.
The debate between downtown residents and developers started last fall after a city staff request to reduce overnight concrete pouring regulations. After hearing construction-related noise complaints, Austin City Council instead tightened rules by temporarily preventing overnight concrete pouring after 2 a.m.
The temporary law, which exempts projects with building plans submitted before Dec. 1, expires March 31 unless City Council extends the law or passes a permanent code change. A stakeholder group of downtown residents, businesses and developers as well as concrete industry representatives has met three times—and intends to meet again—to discuss potential long-term compromises. The goal is to strike a balance that residents and construction companies can accept, said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes downtown.
"There are benefits on either side," said Tovo, the lone incumbent from last year's council. "We want downtown to be successful in attracting residents, so it's important we get the quality of life right, or downtown will soon become unattractive."
The downtown stakeholder group so far has not agreed on decibel levels and time frames for allowing overnight concrete pouring. The council-appointed Downtown Commission also could not reach a recommendation, instead opting Feb. 18 to create a working group that will make a final recommendation in March for City Council to consider.
"We could talk about this for months and try to work to the ideal decibel level and an ideal cutoff time," said Greg Guernsey, Planning and Development Review Department director, during the Downtown Commission meeting. "As someone said last meeting to me: 'We're still not getting any sleep.'"
No construction noise ordinance exists downtown, said Chris Johnson, manager of the city's Development Assistance Center. There is, however, a live music ordinance that sets a noise limit—85 decibels or less—and time restriction—no amplified noise after 2 a.m. A law passed in June 2008 first enabled overnight concrete pouring, he said.
"The justification [for the regulation] was related to traffic safety and the needs of the concrete industry for large pours," Johnson said, citing the ordinance approved at the time by council. "It was seen to be in the best public interest to move this activity to the late night when downtown was quieter."
The case for concrete
Rich Szecsy, president and CEO of the Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association, which advocates on behalf of Austin-area concrete providers, recommends the city create a law that focuses generally on construction noise rather than concrete pouring.
"It's a noise issue, not an application issue," Szecsy said. "Responsible ordinances need to be just that—responsible and balanced, and what the city is proposing is not."
Should the temporary restrictions become permanent, industry officials claim there would be significant delays and increased costs associated. Joe Basham, a partner in the Austin-based construction law firm Allensworth & Porter, said he was recently approached by a client who intends to break ground on a large-scale downtown project between April and June. The temporary ordinance, should it remain, would delay the project's completion by 60 days and increase costs up to $500,000, Basham said.
"They are really hoping they can pour concrete at night," said Basham, who could not reveal the developer, its project or its location. "They're sitting back and waiting. This is is going to be the first real test of this new council—what are they going to do?"
Scheduling is difficult for construction companies who already must overcome permitting delays and subcontractor shortages, said Phil Thoden, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Austin.
"A construction project is like a marching band," said Thoden, whose group advocates on behalf of local general contractors. "An impact in concrete delivery is going to have a ripple effect on everything else."
Downtown concrete pouring is already barred during the morning and evening rush hours. Should concrete trucks be allowed during the rush hours, they would compete for space with the 123,000 people who work downtown, said Julie Fitch, director of economic development and government affairs for the Downtown Austin Alliance, which represents downtown property owners.
"We want people to think about the unintended consequences of concrete trucks lining up the same time as commuters," Fitch said.
The DAA prefers not to pick sides in the debate, Fitch said, but instead proposed a framework, which she pitched Feb. 18 at the Downtown Commission meeting, that calls for separate daytime and overnight decibel limits during construction.
"We've talked to residents who don't consider [construction noise] a problem," she said. "They would rather projects wrap up ASAP."
Barry Lewis, a Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association board member and downtown resident since 2010, said he draws from his 25 years as a commercial general contractor when considering a compromise.
"What we have now is the city and its downtown residents struggling with the unintended consequences of success," Lewis said. "I understand both sides of the problem because I've been on both sides."
When city staff last fall proposed expanding the ability to pour concrete overnight in downtown, DANA members expressed outrage, he said. That outrage continues, Lewis said, despite efforts to reach a compromise.
"We're not opposed to density, and the majority of the [DANA] board is not opposed to some after-hours work," he said. "I can't say the same about [DANA] membership."
One DANA member who supports 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. construction limits, David Newburger, startedILoveDowntownAustin.org to provide downtown residents an outlet to email council members to demand the law be changed. That email form has been filled out 360 times, said Newburger, who rents an apartment at AMLI on 2ND next to multiple ongoing construction projects. He said he has recorded construction noise levels nearing 90 decibels in the middle of the night.
"It's about like a lawnmower, or as I like to say, it's like having Led Zeppelin play outside your window," Newburger said.
Other downtown residents have proposed their own ordinance revisions. Diana Zuniga, president of the Spring Austin Owners Association and co-developer of the Spring Condominium, on Feb. 18 proposed a 10 p.m. time limit and 70-decibel noise maximum.
She also referenced The Bowie, a 31-story residential tower completed in February that could not pour overnight because of the property's zoning. Only one concrete pour lasted until 10 p.m., Zuniga said, and there were no resulting project delays, added costs or increased rates for the residential units.
The situation highlights Austin's competing interest in densifying while also maintaining a high quality of life, Lewis said. Ultimately, he said he recommends reaching a compromise that allows downtown construction crews certainty when planning projects.
"We want to advocate for what's in the best interest for downtown residents, including the creation of more downtown housing," Lewis said. "We have to address the supply side, or else we will only drive up prices."