A rendering of CityPlace Burlington on Cherry Street
Burlington city councilors on Tuesday unanimously approved a settlement agreement with the owners of the CityPlace Burlington project that promises to pay workers a fair wage on the job site.
Councilors had delayed a vote on the settlement last week because it didn’t guarantee union labor to build the downtown project. While the final agreement doesn’t deliver on that front, it does promise to pay workers the prevailing wage, an hourly rate set by the state for various trades.
The wage for construction workers in the Burlington area, for example, is $18.45 an hour. According to the Vermont AFL-CIO, the prevailing wage could boost workers’ earnings by up to 42.5 percent.
"Approval of this resolution, from my perspective, is a big win," Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said before the vote. "I see it as a path forward for the pit that I and all of us have looked at for the last four years."
The agreement formally settles the lawsuit that the city filed last summer against the CityPlace owners, which alleged that they had breached their contract for failing to build the project on the agreed timeline. Mayor Miro Weinberger hailed the initial settlement earlier this month for achieving the city’s planning goal of reconnecting St. Paul and Pine streets to the street grid at no cost to taxpayers.
The document also sets milestones for the developers, such as a construction start date of no later than September 2022. If work doesn’t begin by that point, the developers agreed to pay for the street reconstruction without being reimbursed by the city’s tax-increment financing funds.
The developers — which include Don Sinex and local partners Dave Farrington, Al Senecal and Scott Ireland — have also agreed to pay the city $150,000 in property taxes for each year lost to stalled construction.
The developers have applied for a loan guarantee from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which, if successful, would net funding from an investment trust managed by the AFL-CIO.
But in the days leading up to the council vote last week, Sinex indicated he may pursue other financing options with no union strings attached. The lengthy HUD approval process could jeopardize the agreed-upon start date, Sinex had said. Union representatives subsequently called on councilors to vote down the agreement and draft a new deal that promises union work.
City Attorney Eileen Blackwood, however, said that the city has no legal authority to require the developer to hire union workers. In a memo to councilors and the mayor, Blackwood wrote that such a provision could invite "new complaints" from the developer, “which could negatively affect the City’s litigation position.”
The new settlement offers several labor protections aside from the prevailing wage. It commits to an “open, transparent and fair hiring and bidding process” that will encourage local union shops to participate. It also promises to award a contract to a union shop if one submits the most competitive bid, the document says.
File: James Buck
CityPlace Burlington construction site
CityPlace will also give priority to hiring Burlington residents, unemployed people, veterans, minorities, women and New Americans, the agreement says.
“These are real victories for the working people of Burlington and construction workers across Vermont,” David Van Deusen, president of the Vermont AFL-CIO, said during the meeting's public forum. He credited the unions’ advocacy for the resulting agreement.
“We are proud of this intervention, and pleased that we can once again demonstrate that when organized labor stands tall, when we do not take the status quo as the end point, we can make progress towards economic justice,” Van Deusen said.
The Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council has also endorsed the agreement.
The developers will meet next with the city's Development Review Board on March 3. "We're very excited and can't wait to get going here," Farrington told councilors on Tuesday night.
Councilors Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) and Jack Hanson (P-East District), however, cautioned their colleagues that while the legal fight is over, the project is only just restarting.
"There's also a part of me that is uncomfortable and is nervous because we're years into this, and I think ... trust has been broken along the way," Hanson said. "We still have a lot of work to do to actually achieve what we actually want to achieve."
Fellow Progressive Councilor Jane Stromberg said her support was "probably [the] most reluctant 'yes' vote I'll ever cast." While the city needs to do better at engaging unions, she said, she appreciates that the agreement now recognizes the importance of union work.
"I support working families, and I want what's best for them," Stromberg said. "I appreciate where we've ended up because it's a true improvement compared to where we were just a week ago."
Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), who along with the mayor and Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) helped broker the new deal, said CityPlace's delays have resulted in plans for a better project. The new concept won't be 14 stories tall — a major controversy with the original design — and includes affordable housing and retail "that's in line with Burlington's needs," she said.
"Sometimes, it takes a long journey to find our way home," Paul said before the vote. Supporting the agreement, she said, "[sends] a strong signal to our community that we are committed to moving forward and doing what is best for our future."