Stakeholders have expressed their disdain for the City of Austin’s development review process for many years, but with the release of the “Zucker Report” in May, 2015 the inefficiencies and weaknesses in the City Planning and Development Review Department (PDRD) were validated. The Zucker Report found that the land development code-mandated 120 calendar day site plan approval timeline is actually taking an average of approximately 223 days. If the City of Austin wants to keep up with the growth and development in the area to become a world-class city, they must make some dramatic changes to their development review processes and understand the implications that their inefficiencies have on the developers and the community.
Zucker Systems of San Diego, California was selected by the Austin City Manager to conduct this study to help increase the process efficiency, customer satisfaction, and delivery of accurate and timely services of the PDRD. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time this type of study has been completed in Austin. In 1987 Zucker Systems was also selected to complete a study and issue a similar report. In the Zucker Report published in 2015 it was noted that “many of the issues discussed in 1987 still remain.”
Although Zucker published a verydetailed 783 page report that includes 462 recommendations, they also created an Executive Summary to summarize their findings into 7 critical recommendations that are viewed as the most critical and highest priority. These 7 recommendations are the critical elements needed to revamp this department.
- Finances – Developers are willing to pay for good service, but their fees should be used to improve that service. Separate the PDRD’s excess income from the General Fund in order to fund additional staffing needs and process improvements.
- Management and Communication – Management is a huge concern. There are no clear decision makers and communication is suffering in all aspects of the department. Hire a new Deputy Director for operations and return all phone calls and emails the same day received. An overall culture change is needed to establish a customer focus.
- Other Departments – There are too many departments involved in making decisions and a consultant should be hired to analyze the delegation of tasks to eliminate the maze of tasks developers are often left to negotiate through on their own.
- Performance Standards – Performance standards should be set for each cycle of review and should be cut in half for each cycle afterwards. Whenever performance standards cannot be met, managers should utilize overtime and well qualified consultants to meet the performance standard 90% of the time. All backlogs of permits should be reduced to zero.
- Technology – While PDRD has a robust software package, it is not being used by all planning and development departments and is not being utilized to its fullest capabilities. PDRD needs to transition into the current information age to stay up to date with other growing cities.
- Staffing – Increase staff to keep up with the increasing demand. Use overtime, temporary staff and contract staff to meet performance standards.
- Project Managers/Processes – There is no clear process path for developers or the PDRD staff to follow. Developing a Project Manager Program will help organize the processes to follow a more uniform timeline.
Often times it is difficult to quantify the consequences of such delays within governmental agencies. Megan Shannon took this opportunity to study these delays and translate them into measurable consumer out of pocket expenses in her graduate thesis titled “The Costs of Regulatory Delay in Austin” which was published as her capstone project when graduating from the University of Texas with a Master’s degree in Community and Regional Planning in May, 2015. In this report she studied and interviewed 14 Austin area multi-family housing developers and determined that the delays in planning approvals can be directly translated into an increase of 4-5% in rental rates within Austin housing. This increase is equivalent to $60-$65 per month out of each renter’s pocket. Not only does this increase come directly out of renters’ expendable income, but it has a waterfall effect on the local community by promoting exurban growth as well as stifling development innovation and decreasing the quality of developments.
Upon reviewing the Zucker Report and Shannon’s thesis, it’s not hard to realize what’s going on in the Austin Planning and Development Review Department. This department is a government arm with no accountability or perceived need to work more efficiently or change anything they are doing. Any businessman, entrepreneur, or successful manager can easily see the inefficiencies and it would be difficult for them to not want to help make the changes if it was their business. The Zucker Report doesn’t give any information that any successful business hasn’t already implemented in their business’ processes. Unfortunately the perception of any governmental agency is the same and has been for a long time. Allan Brownfield wrote an article in 1977 titled “The Inherent Inefficiency of Government Bureaucracy” in which his opening statement was “There are few who will disagree with the fact that, in recent years, the governmental bureaucracy has grown dramatically while its efficiency has deteriorated in an equally dramatic manner.“ It is very difficult to imagine that the Austin PDRD will make the needed changes to improve their process even though there is a direct effect to the pocketbooks of those living in the city. I hope I’m wrong…
About the Author: David Carpenter
I am an experienced Commercial Real Estate Advisor with a mission to create wealth for investors through Commercial Real Estate. However, I am also a family man! With 3 kids at home, I spend most of my spare time with my wife and kids supporting them in the things that they love. I like to mix in a little fishing, gardening, refinishing furniture, reading, and watching the Spurs whenever I get a chance.