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Concrete Pours Downtown: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

April 11, 2016

About 18 months ago, Austin City Staff made a recommendation to change the rules for pouring concrete at night. Their original desire was to expand the area that was permitted to allow overnight concrete pours to include sites zoned Downtown Mixed Use (DMU). This was a great idea and had it gone forward, it would have benefited countless residents and businesses in and around the downtown area. Unfortunately, that recommendation was not to be and the debate began: can overnight concrete pours continue downtown?

So what are the circumstances that have caused such a heated debate? The following items are at stake on both sides of the issue: worker safety, congested traffic, added pollution, loss of sleep by people who reside downtown, driver employment, higher building costs, longer construction schedules and volatility of concrete material.

What stirred the pot? When city staff introduced the plan to expand the area of downtown that would allow permits to pour concrete at night, downtown residents spoke up. And when they did, they said if the code is going to change, let’s change it to allow NO pouring at night, even in the Central Business District (CBD) where the practice is currently permitted, and in turn reversing a practice that was put into place in 2008 to get the concrete trucks off the roads during peak daytime hours.

We all know Austin is a lively, growing city that is attracting more business and residents to the downtown area. People want to be here and if they move downtown they want to be within walking distance of entertainment, great restaurants, Lady Bird Lake, and all of the special events and festivals that are located in the heart of downtown.

Right now there are approximately 12,000 residents that live downtown in addition to the more than 100,000 people commuting to, working in, or visiting the downtown area every day. Austin’s downtown is a vibrant place where commercial and residential uses are highly mixed.  It is also an area that currently has a noise ordinance that allows music and other sounds up to 85dBa until 2:00 a.m.  depending on the area, regardless of the location of residential units.

What has been going on for the last 18 months? Shortly after the original ordinance was heard, and changed by the City Council, a stakeholder group of concerned residents, business owners, and industry representatives was assembled to discuss the ordinance and proposed changes with City Staff. Arriving at a compromise was the intention of the group, however little consensus was ever achieved. On November 20, 2014, a temporary ordinance was put in place for all projects permitted after December 1, 2014, restricting the placement of concrete material after 2:00 a.m. and requiring light and sound mitigation plans to be submitted and approved in order to obtain a concrete placement permit. This temporary ordinance has been extended multiple times by City Council and is still in place today. Every time the ordinance is set to expire, it is extended.

Why pour concrete at night and what happens if pouring is not allowed to continue?

  • Worker safety is by far the biggest factor. It is not uncommon for temperatures on the metal decks that hold the concrete to be well in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A daytime pour could have 30 workers or more on a deck for a period of 8-10+ hours in extreme heat. These are extremely dangerous working conditions and they would place many lives in danger.
  • Transporting concrete material to the site requires a significant number of trucks. Circulating these concrete trucks in daytime downtown traffic would not be a good idea.  And circulating them during the highest pollution time-frame of the day (as the proposed ordinance requires) adds to another problem the city is trying to solve in reducing emissions to an improved, acceptable level. Concrete trucks are typically staged at a location that allows for quick access to the project site. Trucks would potentially be staging on congested downtown streets, snarling traffic and interrupting movement in and out of places of business. Also, what about the safety of bicycle riders and pedestrians with the added traffic load due to the high volume of additional concrete trucks? Add to this the increase in traffic with new residents moving into town every day.
  • The new ordinance adds time to each and every concrete pour. We want to be good neighbors and complete the task of pouring concrete as quickly as possible. Any gains in reduced noise will be offset by extended construction schedules. Prohibiting pours after 2 a.m. will extend construction schedules by at least 10 percent, likely more. A 24-month project would be extended to 28 months, at a minimum, impacting all Austinites for a longer period of time.
  • As the debate of affordable housing in Austin continues, this ordinance will only add to the cost of building the residential buildings that are in such high demand, pushing the reality of affordable housing further away as the additional costs will be pushed down to the residents.

I will let you decide what or who the good, the bad and the ugly are: determining this will depend on whether you are a downtown resident, one of the 10,000 workers that will be affected if this ordinance stays in place, or if you work in the building industry.  As a small side note, according to Austin Police Department records, there have only been 53 complaints on construction noise over the last five years. To put this in perspective, there are more noise complaints on barking dogs, but we are not talking about restricting the time you can have your dog outside.

Industry representatives have been involved in good-faith discussions with city residents, staff and City Council Members to find a solution to the challenge of meeting high construction demand downtown while also respecting the concerns expressed by residents who live there.  We believe we have compromised significantly from a past policy of unrestricted pours overnight to now include noise and time limits for this activity. We are working hard to find a solution that is beneficial to all. If you believe this ordinance will be a negative change to our construction and development industry, I invite you to become involved and voice your opinion to your City Council Representative or contact A.J. Bingham on the RECA staff.

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