Burlington city councilors agreed on Tuesday to postpone a vote on the settlement of a lawsuit with the owners of CityPlace over concerns that the developers haven't committed to using union labor to construct the downtown project.
The settlement seeks to resolve the lawsuit the city filed against the developers last September, which alleged they had violated a development agreement by not building the downtown project on the original timeline. Developers had agreed to continue building "without interruption" after the former Burlington Town Center mall was torn down in 2017, but the site has been vacant since, earning the derisive nickname "the pit."
As part of the new deal, the developers agreed to rebuild the cut-off sections of St. Paul and Pine streets — and pay for it if construction doesn't begin by September 2022 — among other provisions. The city and the partners cheered the settlement as a key step in moving the project forward.
Sinex and his partners have applied for a loan guarantee from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which, if successful, would almost certainly get financing from an investment trust managed by the AFL-CIO.
In recent weeks, however, Sinex has indicated that he may pursue other financing, which wouldn't guarantee union labor. In a statement to Seven Days on Monday evening, Sinex said the HUD process is lengthy and "approval might come long after" the agreed-upon construction start date.
"I will use all reasonable efforts to come to a final agreement with the AFL CIO once a HUD loan guaranty is obtained, if it is obtained and obtained prior to the time we must start construction," Sinex wrote, adding that relying on the HUD program "would be foolish and irresponsible of me and our team."
Vermont AFL-CIO president David Van Deusen said he's urged Sinex and the city to consider extending the construction deadlines to accommodate the HUD application process. He said the AFL-CIO has asked Sinex to agree to use union labor even if the HUD program falls through but that the developer "has refused."
Tuesday night, Van Deusen and other labor representatives asked the council to either delay a decision or vote down the agreement and draft a new deal that promises union work. In addition to safe working conditions and fair pay, the AFL-CIO would provide apprenticeships to women and Black, Indigenous and other people of color on the job site if it finances the project.
"What's before you tonight is a simple question," Van Deusen told councilors. "Are you going to toe the line of an out-of-state developer looking to make money off the city of Burlington, or will you stand with your local unions and fight to make sure these jobs are done right?"
In his statement, Sinex argued that the agreement already has "numerous labor and labor practice conditions." These include agreements to hire contractors "who pay appropriate wages ... participate (where applicable) in formal
apprenticeship training programs, and provide employer funded health and
retirement benefits," the agreement says.
"These labor conditions that we have agreed to will be fulfilled by us no matter how we finance the project," Sinex said in his statement.
People on both sides of the debate called into Tuesday's meeting. Former city councilors Jane Knodell and Kurt Wright both urged the council to put the lawsuit in the rearview and accept the agreement. So did Burlington resident Chiuho Sampson, who said construction delays have already harmed her restaurant, A Single Pebble, which is adjacent to the project site.
"I'm putting my faith in your hand, for other businesses downtown as well," she said. "This is really important to get this over with and in an efficient timeframe."
Activist Jimmy Leas took a different stance, saying that more delays are worth it if the agreement results in union jobs. Danielle Bombardier, an electrician represented by the IBEW Local 300 union, said many union workers travel outside Vermont for higher-paying jobs. The CityPlace project, she said, would "keep them working local and [give] them the wages that they deserve."
The council will debate the issue at a special meeting next week, which has not yet been scheduled. Farrington did not immediately answer a request for comment after the meeting.
Weinberger warned councilors to not delay action for too long. "We've invested tens of thousands of dollars to get to this point," he said. "We need to make a decision."
Also Tuesday night, councilors approved a resolution that calls on the University of Vermont to protect employees even as it confronts a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
In December, the university announced it would eliminate three departments, 12 majors, 11 minors and four master's programs, creating "turmoil and suffering" for the UVM community, the council's resolution says. The measure says that award-winning faculty have been terminated while university executives received bonuses.
The resolution asks the university "to reverse regressive austerity measures aimed at vulnerable educators ... and instead to make decisions with employees recognizing the community value of a liberal arts education."
It passed unanimously.
Correction, February 17, 2021: A previous version of this story misspelled Danielle Bombardier's name.