Austin seeks solutions for inefficiency in city permitting processes

South Austin Beer Garden is located on Manchaca Road and opened this spring after numerous delays related to permitting.

South Austin Beer Garden is located on Manchaca Road and opened this spring after numerous delays related to permitting.

Image description
Comparing Austin’s standard and expedited permitting options
Image description
The numbers, city by city
Image description
Turning the tide

Builders in the Austin area are well aware of criticism from locals who have said private and commercial projects take much longer to complete than originally proposed. Similarly, city of Austin officials said they know they are frequently criticized by developers for having a lengthy and sometimes overwhelming permitting process.

Businesses such as South Austin Beer Garden, for instance, have experienced significant delays. SABG first discussed delays with Community Impact Newspaper in 2016, then already a year past when plans for the business were announced. SABG finally opened in May of this year.

Josh Bumb, an owner of Moontower Saloon, located near SABG, said while permitting lasted months rather than years for his most recent South Austin venture, Vincent’s Sports Pub, costs related to permitting towered at around $200,000. The restaurant and bar opened in October 2018, almost a year after Bumb’s original goal of opening in November 2017, which he told Community Impact Newspaper during early stages of development.

“Everybody on our end will tell you it’s exorbitant price that can break you, and it simply takes too long,” said Bumb.

While developers have complained of slow processing for years, the 2015 Zucker Report made the criticism official. The 800-page report by independent consulting firm Zucker Systems concluded the city should invest $4.25 million to improve Austin’s planning and development review department.

In 2018, Rodney Gonzales, then director of the newly branded Austin Development Services Department, told Community Impact Newspaper the report was “a personal blow” to development staff.

Streamlining the process

Since the Zucker Report’s release, the city has made changes initially spearheaded by Gonzales, who now serves as assistant city manager. The development services department was structured after the report’s release, along with the creation of an expedited building plan review option. The option allows developers to meet with representatives of all departments relevant to permitting at once.

According to Brenda de la Garza, the consumer services manager for the expedited review, this option, which includes added fees compared to the standard building plan review process, was a response to consumer feedback received through Zucker Systems’ survey.

“Point blank, our customers wanted an alternative path, even if it would cost more money,” de la Garza said.

James Stinson, a value-add contractor with Texas Site Development who specializes in “taking the rocket science” out of permitting and development for laymen, acknowledged that a complicated process favors the work of people such as himself who help others navigate the system. He said he still believes, however, that the time it takes projects to complete zoning and permitting—often 12 to 14 months, he said—is exorbitant, although not unexpected due to a limited staff.

“Permitting really comes down to Travis [County] and the city of Austin and their willingness to staff those positions,” he said.

With a lack of staffing, certain improvements are only available at a premium, such as the expedited review option, which de la Garza said is a source of research for the standard review process as well. She said it is teaching the various departments tied to permitting to “work together and collaborate, not get in each others’ way.”

The opportunity to have a live meeting with representatives from each department can cut down a permitting cycle from 37 days to several hours, but with high demand, representatives for a project may have to wait around a month for a meeting with the expedited building plan review team, according to de la Garza. Long meetings mean less opportunities to make appointments.

In 2018, the expedited option’s first year, de la Garza said the team reviewed 720 permits, a fraction of the many thousands that were submitted to the city. With such volume, the expedited option simply is not widely available, although de la Garza said it clears larger and more complex projects from the standard review queue, freeing up space for standard review of smaller projects.

The view from different perches

For small-business owners, additional fees associated with an expedited process can be prohibitive. However, with the standard review process, permitting delays can also create substantial costs and losses.

“With almost every project, you try to buffer in some time for the extended permitting process,” Bumb said.

Stinson said navigating the process was difficult for both homeowners and small-business owners, especially those with little land-development experience. Hiring engineers and contractors who have the right background and relationships with city staff is key, he said.

“It’s really tough as a greenhorn business owner to go in and find the right people,” Stinson said.

In response to Austin’s housing boom, Stinson said a number of individuals have marketed themselves as development experts. However, he said some may not have experience with the specific area that an owner seeks help with, especially if they are not from the area, and may further bog down the process.

Overall, Stinson said he believes the city is making strides toward transparency by applying lessons learned through the expedited process, for example.

Geoffrey Tahuahua, the vice president of policy and government affairs for the Real Estate Council of Austin and a former Dripping Springs City Council candidate, has assisted developers with permitting and has at times been a sharp critic of Austin’s process, but he agreed the city seems to be moving in the right direction.

“It’s probably going to take [time] to see changes, but the important thing is that we’re having those conversations,” Tahuahua said.

Size matters

In the neighboring city of Sunset Valley, with a population of hundreds as opposed to Austin’s near million, the standard building plan review resembles Austin’s premium-priced expedited one, but at a lower price point.

“We’re definitely proud of the way we handle permitting projects,” said Sara Wilson, interim Sunset Valley city administrator.

Sunset Valley’s small land area also allows for a less complicated land development code. Still, Wilson said she viewed it as the city’s responsibility to help clients understand the code.

“Reading the [land development] code is our job,” she said. “We’re supposed to walk them through it.”

Similarly, in neighboring Dripping Springs, Tahuahua said permitting staff can be more “creative and flexible” due to their relative size and demands on staff.

Permitting duties in Dripping Springs are currently divided between two departments—planning, which handles site development, and building, which handles building plan review—but building official Sarah Cole said she and the site development head are considering proposing a merger of these areas. As it stands, Dripping Springs’ process is similar to Sunset Valley’s, with plans reviewed by all departments before comments are returned, Cole said.

While Austin’s department is difficult to compare to these cities’ due to size and scale, the systems of neighboring cities’ departments are relevant, Tahuahua said.

“There are some developers whose whole business plan in the Austin area is to not build in the city of Austin,” he said.

Other Austin-area cities are taking notice of those developers’ frustrations. Philip Ellett, a Sunset Valley City Council member who ran on a platform of encouraging development, said he thought his city should use its size and relatively simple process strategically.

“If we have that advantage, we should certainly be using it,” Ellett said.

Simplifying the Code

A chief reason many business owners need a hand in deciphering the process, according to Stinson and others, is the city’s complicated land-development code. The code is slated for a rewrite this year after the initial CodeNEXT land code revision process ended last year with City Council requesting more change. The rewrite is now led by City Manager Spencer Cronk, with City Council tentatively scheduled to review an initial draft of a new code rewrite proposal this fall.

According to Cronk, the rewrite effort will focus on addressing a few key points: scope of revisions, density and housing, compatibility standards and parking.

Public opinion on the potential impact for the rewrite has been mixed. Stinson said he was unsure of the rewrite’s implications for small-business owners.

“I think the land-development rewrite will have minimal effect. I really do,” Stinson said. “I don’t see a new land code making it a whole lot easier for people who aren’t knowledgeable about this to finish their projects.”

Tahuahua, however, said the rewrite is a move in the right direction.

“The way we’re gonna make a difference is by getting the land-development code right so we have more efficiency,” he said.

By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


The Office of Police Oversight released its first comprehensive report detailing its operations though 2019 and 2020 this June. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Office of Police Oversight report finds complaints against Austin police officers went up, but discipline fell in 2020

The new report centers on the office's three main functions, including tracking APD officer discipline, reviewing the city's police policies, and engaging with Austin residents.

Dreamland adding a disc golf course to its Dripping Springs outdoor entertainment and arts offerings in June. (Courtesy Dreamland)
Dripping Springs and Driftwood business news: Dreamland gets disc golf, new dog grooming business gets closer to opening and more

The new disc golf course at the outdoor entertainment venue sits on 42 acres and is free to play through June.

Volunteers of Austin Vaccine Angels gathered after becoming fully vaccinated. (Courtesy Jodi Holzband)
Grassroots groups aimed at vaccine outreach look toward the future

For the past five months, grassroots volunteer groups have been working to connect thousands of Central Texans to COVID-19 vaccines.

Washington Prime Group Inc. owns six area shopping centers, including The Arboretum. (Courtesy The Arboretum)
Owner of Austin-area shopping centers files for bankruptcy; entertainment complex coming to Cedar Park and more top area news

Read the top business and community news from the past week from the Central Texas area.

Photo of a woman and girl walking the trail with the Austin skyline behind them
Travis County commits to electrify fleet, doubles down on climate goals

Commissioners directed staff this week to develop a plan to fully electrify Travis County's fleet of vehicles, a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions for the county.

The Bloomhouse—an 1,100-square-foot home in the hills of West Austin—was built in the 1970s by University of Texas architecture students for fellow student Dalton Bloom. It was featured in the Austin Weird Homes Tour of 2020. (Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Weird Homes Tour ends; Z’Tejas to close Arboretum restaurant and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

Project Connect's proposed Orange Line will run from Tech Ridge, through downtown Austin and to Slaughter Lane. (Rendering courtesy Project Connect)
Project Connect Orange Line design reveals proposed locations for rail stations in North, South Austin

The latest Orange Line design shows potential elevated rail line over I-35, as well as options for the Drag.

Photo of a weird home
Austin's Weird Homes Tour says goodbye—for now

The tour's founders say they are open to a new local operator taking over the event.

The former hotel off I-35 had most recently been used as a COVID-19 homeless Protection Lodge. (Courtesy City of Austin)
East Cesar Chavez encampment residents move into former South Austin hotel

Through Austin's HEAL initiative, residents of an encampment near East Austin's Terrazas Branch Libarary were relocated to a South Austin shelter before that camp is cleared away.

The regional blood bank appealed for further donations in the wake of the June 12 shooting in downtown Austin. (Courtesy We Are Blood)
We Are Blood appeals for blood donations following weekend shooting in downtown Austin

The Central Texas nonprofit also said its blood supply remains depleted due to decreased donations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo of a man holding robotic equipment
Tesla teams up with Austin Community College for manufacturing training and hiring program

The Tesla START program will hire and train ACC students to work with robotics and other advanced manufacturing equipment.

Austin City Council's Housing and Planning Committee met virtually June 15. (Screenshot via City of Austin)
Austin City Council members, city Realtors talk housing market increases and affordability

The median sale price of Austin homes surged past $500,000 through the first five months of 2021.