Waterfront Project seeks more diversity in construction

New amendments to the development agreement for the South Waterfront Central District Project include a Workforce Diversity Strategy aimed at increasing the participation of ethnic minorities and women in Portland-area union construction trades and professions.

Portland City Council approved the amendment presented by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) on a 4-0 vote June 10. It is the third amendment to the development agreement signed August 2003 by the PDC, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and private developers, led by Homer Williams. The amended version also updates the projects funding and financial plan and sets new affordable housing goals.

The South Waterfront Central District is a 31-acre parcel of vacant industrial land on Portland’s Willamette River waterfront, directly south of downtown, that is being developed with public and private dollars into a neighborhood with a mix of jobs, housing, retail and recreation.

The $1.9 billion project is billed as the largest economic development project in the history of the City of Portland. After getting the Central District off the ground, the city’s plan is to promote development of the surrounding 100-plus acres comprising the South Waterfront Plan. The 131 acres are within the North Macadam Urban Renewal District, which extends 1.2 miles along the West bank of the river.

Work has already begun on the first phase. According to plan, the Central District will create 2,700 new housing units (430 affordable), 12 new office buildings and 1.5 million square feet of new medical research facilities for OHSU, creating up to 5,000 new jobs.

PDC estimates 1,000 construction jobs will be created in the first phase of the project.

PDC is coordinating the project with participation from Portland city bureaus and private partners including OHSU, North Macadam Investors (NMI), a limited liability corporation of investors that includes (Homer) Williams & Dames Development Co., the major developer of Portland’s River District. River Campus Investors, which is jointly owned by NMI and OHSU, and Block 39, another limited liability corporation.

The City of Portland has pledged $72 million in local and federal funding for road and infrastructure improvements. Last year, the U.S. Senate approved $1.6 million to be used for a waterfront greenway, more than 200 units of affordable housing and to extend streetcar service to the area. The funds were included in the FY 2004 Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies spending bill.

Union pension funds also will help finance land acquisition and infrastructure development of approximately 28 acres. Washington Capital Management Inc. has provided $17,650,000 in two loans to NMI. The money comes largely from building trades pension funds.

The Workforce Diversity Strategy will apply to all public and private projects within the Central District. It focuses on “permanently increasing the number of qualified women and minorities entering and successfully completing union apprenticeship training programs and remaining in the construction trades in the Portland metropolitan area.”

The 10-year goal is to have 35 percent women and minorities — 20 percent ethnic minority and 15 percent women — employed on a project-by-project basis. Initially, the ratio is set at 4 percent women and 12 percent minorities, with incremental increases each year.

The amendment also calls for reaching an agreement to increase union apprenticeship enrollment and journey-level completion rates for women and minorities over the same time period.

At a PDC meeting June 8, Anthony Lincoln of the PDC staff said the goal is to “normalize the attrition rate” of women and minorities comparative to men in the trades. He said the current dropout rate among women and minority apprentices is 85 percent, compared to 50 percent for the male majority.

An example of the apprenticeship training targets as outlined by PDC shows that Iron Workers Local 29 would require four women and two minorities in their training program right away; increasing to 20 women and 10 minorities by the 10th year.

Lincoln said PDC and its partners will seek negotiated commitments from the building trades unions to incorporate the targeted goals.

PDC Commissioner Noell Webb, who helped lead the workforce diversity effort, affirmed that “PDC is firmly committed to diversifying the workplace. It boils down to fairness and just good business. We will see a tremendous transformation when a person earning $10 an hour can move into a job earning a living wage. Those employee wages will be reinvested into our community.”

Testifying at both the Portland City Council and PDC meetings, Wally Mehrens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, said he appreciated PDC’s and the council’s recognition of the unions and union contractors that do the vast majority of training.

“We look forward to this labor agreement for the duration of the project,” he said.

Elizabeth Folsom, an unemployed member of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, told city commissioners and the PDC board of directors that she could start work immediately at the Central District.

Active in the Oregon Tradeswomen Network, Folsom suggested that the Workforce Diversity Strategy be implemented on all PDC projects.

“I would also like to see all of your projects paying prevailing wages and all of your contractors be registered training agents,” she said.

Because of public funding, union officials consider the Central District a prevailing wage project. However, in reviewing the third amendment, the Northwest Labor Press has found language that might suggest otherwise.

The amendment says “NMI will make a good-faith effort to select contractors who pay Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries published prevailing wage rates unless paying a prevailing wage rate puts NMI at a competitive disadvantage or substantially damages or interferes with NM efforts to meet workforce diversity goals as reasonably determined by NMI.”

Further, the amendment says “each party shall be required to pursue the goals of the workforce diversity strategy and to use good-faith efforts to seek agreements with contractors and trade unions unless doing so puts any such party at a competitive disadvantage, as reasonably determined by such party.”

Mehrens told the Northwest Labor Press that he testified in support of the third amendment because the development agreement codifies $1.9 billion of work that will be using union apprenticeship programs and union contractors.

“The application of prevailing wages is something we disagree on with PDC,” Mehrens said. “We do no believe that PDC has the power to circumvent state law. With an agreement in place that uses union apprenticeship programs and union contractors, this argument is a moot point.”

Mehrens also disputes PDC’s apprenticeship completion percentages.

“Mr. Lincoln has been informed that his completion percentages are inaccurate, yet he continues to use them,” Mehrens said.

Steve Simms, director of the Apprenticeship and Training Division of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, told the Labor Press the overall apprenticeship completion rate for the 15 training programs on the PDC target list was 68 percent.

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