With less than two years left on her retail lease, Lisa Gaynor is already rethinking keeping her business in the city of Austin.
In 2011 she relocated her business—Design With Consignment, a high-end furniture resale shop—from South Austin to Steck Avenue near MoPac. Delays in receiving approval on converting a warehouse into a showroom forced her to close the business for more than two months, costing her about $150,000, she said.
Gaynor even built expected delays into the timeline for relocating—just not enough time because the process took about a year.
"I like this area. It's a good fit for my business, but I would like to expand," she said. "It's giving me real serious pause to [ask], 'Do I want to go through with [a full build-out] again?' I'm actually seriously thinking if I were to expand I would make sure I went to Cedar Park or someplace else where I wasn't dealing with the city [of Austin]."
The city of Austin is taking steps to update its admittedly "difficult"-to-navigate permitting process, said J.B. Meier, chief plans examiner with the city's Commercial Building Plan Review Department.
However, the process has not been as negative for every business. Troy Christ, co-owner of Blue Bottom Pool Supply, said initially the process was very unorganized compared to Cedar Park where he opened his first location. It was hard to reach someone in Austin's permitting department to ask what he needed to open a second location on RM 620 at Anderson Mill Road, he said.
"We were told we did not need a permit or certificate of occupancy to open our business," Christ said, adding he had doubts about that. "I asked, 'Are you sure?' And the [employee] told me yes."
Construction consisted of removing two walls, painting and relocating one electrical wire. An electrician and the property's landlord oversaw the process, Christ said.
"We were fortunate," he said of the process. "It's good for us small businesses."
Navigating the process
The city's Development Assistance Center can consult on all aspects of development, center Manager Christopher Johnson said.
"As far as our walk-in customer base goes, it runs the entire spectrum from someone who has a dream and has never done anything like this before all the way up to professional developers and engineering firms who do this all the time, but they have a particularly complex site," he said.
In addition to free consultations, the DAC can process minor applications.
The city offers a preliminary plan review for building plans to highlight red flags and help entrepreneurs devise a game plan for tackling the permitting process, Meier said.
"There have certainly been cases where an applicant has come in and proposed plans to do a minor remodel to an existing building," Johnson said. "Based on what they were showing on their plans, they complied with the criteria for site plan exemption, and we approved it based on that. When they go out in the field, they actually demolish the whole building, and they get upset when they run into compliance issues."
Meier, who was a mechanical contractor for nine years, now supervises a staff of 19 who handle intake processes and review and examine building plans and systems.
"We're not the dream killers people make us out to be," Meier said. "We know exactly what it's like."
Evaluating a site plan—which ensures compliance with land use code—can take months or a year, depending on complexity, he said. Building plans—which ensure compliance with building, mechanical and other code—take less time to evaluate, he said. Both processes must be completed before permits can be issued.
"In some areas we're kind of behind the times," he said, noting permitting documents are printed on paper rather than made available digitally. "There are folks that are looking at [developing an] electronic submittal, meaning we wouldn't have a set of plans that has 400 pages in it that weighs 65 to 70 pounds that we have to carry around from reviewer to reviewer to reviewer."
The site plan review department already uses some electronic submittal, he said. The city's CodeNext effort to rewrite its land development code might streamline the permitting process, but that will likely take years to incorporate, Meier said.
Expediting firms such as Permit Partners LLC can coordinate with the city, said President and founder David Cancialosi, a former urban planner.
"We've worked with business owners who have signed a lease only to find out that there are expired permits from the prior owner or tenant that are going to impact their ability to move forward," he said. " It takes about 30 minutes for us to do [zoning and permitting verification] on the front end and save them a ton of money and headache."
Gaynor said if she decides to stay in Austin, she will hire the developer and builder who dealt with the permitting department for her during the relocation or hire an expeditor. She said she could not imagine navigating the process on her own.
"The other thing that's really frustrating is the inconsistency," she said. "We'd have one inspector come out and say one thing, and another inspector would come out and say something else."
That perceived inconsistency in the permitting process has also been a sore spot for the owners of Amy's Ice Creams.
Co-owner Steve Simmons said he had to hire an arborist, geologist and several engineers to complete tasks such as analyzing the soil and installing bike racks and signs for compact vehicles at Austinville 78750, which includes Amy's Ice Creams, Phil's Icehouse and Baked by Amy's. The sitework cost $200,000, and the full build-out was nearly $1 million.
"You would think it's 100 percent what Austin wants: rainwater collection, we saved the trees, brought in great Austin businesses," he said. "Instead they made a very simple process very complicated."
He said city code needs to be revised.
"What kept Austin weird is being pushed to Buda and Bastrop," he said. "It's a very complicated issue, but hopefully with 10-1 [City Council redistricting] we'll bring in some business people on council that get what drives this engine."