City aims to streamline its permitting process

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.

Permitting was in the spotlight in March when Dan's Hamburgers owner Katie Congdon penned an open letter claiming the city made updating her Manchaca Road restaurant "prohibitive" and there should be a better way for businesses to build.

"Never again as a small business could we afford to remodel in the city of Austin," she wrote.

Other area business owners have also reported experiencing issues during the permitting process. LV Johns, owner and head trainer at CrossFit Python in Southwest Austin, said she signed a lease in January and hopes to open the gym in May.

"The biggest hurdle we've had is when we had construction guys come in, there was a bunch of wiring that was incorrect that had to be removed," she said. "It has been a long, drawn-out process, especially with the plans because they kept on getting rejected because of the architect not knowing there [were complications] in the building."

She said the city could make requirements more clear.

"It's just a frustrating process," she said. "For a small-business owner, I think it's so important for them to know what to expect when they're building their space ... and what laws they need to consider."

When Amy's Ice Creams opened its first Southpark Meadows store in 2007, there were no issues, co-owner Steve Simmons said.

However, when developing a second Southpark Meadows location next to the Cinemark movie theater later that same year, he said he had problems with building inspectors not being consistent.

He said one inspector told him he had to use steel framing instead of wood, which Simmons had used in the first location. It would have cost him $20,000 to fix, but another inspector told him he could instead use fireproof paint and sheet rock to resolve the issue, he said.

Simmons said city code needs revision.

"It's a very complicated issue, but hopefully with 10-1 [City Council redistricting] we'll bring in some business people on [City] Council that get what drives this engine," Simmons said.

Local business Petite Dental allotted two months for permitting, but the process took four months, owner Kim Hoang said.

"We missed our busiest season—summer—because of it," she said. "And you have to pay your overhead for those additional months, so it is pretty stressful. We actually ended up opening during the slowest time of the year."

The business submitted plans in January 2013 and opened that September, she said.

Carlos Rivero, owner/founder of El Chile Cafe y Cantina, is developing a restaurant, El Chilito, on Manchaca Road. He said he is "not a fan" of the city permitting process.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult to work with the city," he said. "However, there's another side to it. This is such a great city, and the city of Austin [government] probably has something to do with it. They do not let [development] run amok."

The city's Development Assistance Center can consult on all aspects of development, said Christopher Johnson, the center's manager.

"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.

Charting a course

In addition to free consultations, the DAC can process some applications.

The city also offers a preliminary review for building plans to highlight red flags and help entrepreneurs devise a game plan for tackling the 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, and based on what they were showing on their plans, they complied with the criteria for site plan exemption and then we approved it based on that," Johnson said. "And then when they go out in the field, they actually demolish the whole building, and then they get upset when they run into compliance issues."

Meier, who was a mechanical contractor for nine years, said he supervises a staff of 19 who handle intake, provide reviews 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 on paper rather than made available digitally. "There are folks [in the department] 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 South Austin–based Permit Partners LLC can coordinate with the city, President and founder David Cancialosi said. A former urban planner, he helps show entrepreneurs the ropes.

"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," he said. " It takes about 30 minutes for us to do [zoning verification] on the front end and save them a ton of money and headache."

Smashburger Regional Director Brad Brown said permitting in Austin is difficult compared with Waco and New Braunfels.

"This particular store was a very drawn-out process," he said of the Southpark Meadows location, noting its architect was unfamiliar with local code.

"I honestly do appreciate that [Austin] takes the time to make sure that the buildings are well-built ... and that as a guest you can go into a building and know that it's safe," Brown said.

Wynn Bradford, a studio technician at Creative Side Jewelry Academy in Southwest Austin, worked as a contractor for years in Florida and throughout Texas.

"Austin is one of the best cities to deal with in the United States [in terms of] the permitting process. ... And those rules are there for a reason. If you take a shortcut, somebody's going to die," he said. "It's that simple."

Additional reporting by Amy Denney and Joe Olivieri