Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Fast 'n' Friendly! Development Review Gets Flattened By Budget Steamroller

Austin At Large
It's a testament to how bureaucratically literate Austinites are that such a dull bit of government-ese as "development review process" can get people all inflamed. Of course, they get inflamed for different reasons. People who want to build things -- be they big fat gross developers, cute little small-business owners, or average central-city homeowners -- have long felt City Hall (or, more precisely, One Texas Center) is dedicated to making their lives as difficult as possible. People who don't want things built -- usually the neighbors -- think One Texas Center is already too willing to give projects a free pass and ignore the many, many, many provisions of the city Land Development Code, each with its own backstory of citizen woe. Nobody is happy -- including the city's development reviewers themselves, caught in the middle. ("There's been a lot of complaint about the attitudes of staff," says City Manager Toby Futrell. "But much of that comes from the situation we put the staff in.")

What an opportune time for a budget crisis! The day Futrell released her FY 04 budget proposal -- that is, before the City Council had even seen it -- nearly one in three of the city's development-review jobs were eliminated and people were sent packing. The survivors, along with City Hall observers, remembered candidate Will Wynn's impolitic comments to his business backers that "the city needs to get out of the development review and inspection business." "Most employees feel the city manager has been pretty forthright," says one development-review staffer in an (anonymous) letter to the Chronicle, "but wonder if she was pressured to gut this department."

Maybe so. But development review has been a civic crisis at least since I started covering Austin politics -- which was years before Will Wynn even lived here, so cut the mayor some slack. And City Hall has been making loud commitments to fix the development review process that entire time, with a lack of success almost Platonic in its consistency and completeness. How is the current streamlining -- designed, in the words of the city's development-review boss-of-the-moment Joe Pantalion, to be "faster and friendlier" -- going to be different?

Whose Oxen to Be Gored?

Though big fat gross developer pigs tend to squeal most shrilly about their rights being trampled by city staff, they have lawyers like Richard Suttle and consultants like Sarah Crocker who have mastered the process, and one's heart should bleed spit for them. (They're currently waving the bloody shirt of "economic growth," but if building profitably in Austin were really as difficult as the real estate lobby says it is, then there would be no huge and powerful real estate lobby to say it.) It's the nice people, your friends and neighbors, small businesses (like the Chronicle, in fact) and homeowners trying to add on babies' rooms, who more typically get bruised from having been ridden hard and put up wet through the halls of One Texas Center. The budget crisis may have provided a reason to downsize, but the current round of this rodeo started with the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy -- whose small-business section was filled with venting about just how truly horrible it was for the Keep Austin Weird set to deal with the city.

Among these latter victims, though, the need for regulation and review itself is not questioned, and is in fact loudly endorsed. The Land Development Code, after all, is the law, and the One Texas Center staff its enforcers, and this livability police force is just as vital to a healthy city as the other kind of cops. Futrell and her team have, for the most part, deliberately sidestepped changing the code, though it could certainly use it. "All the attempts to improve this process in the past have been tied to changing the code," Futrell says, "and that's why they always fail." (The Mayor's Task Force effort has itself produced potential code changes to help small businesses, but those are not part of the budget.)

Rather, Futrell has concentrated on "the 21é2 parts of development review that good, sound city management can actually control" -- the people, the technology, and that part of the process that isn't dictated by the code or by state law. (The remainder are the code requirements themselves.) She and Pantalion have promised council they will turn what is now actually four separate processes -- reviewing and inspecting both the site plan and the building -- into a "one-stop shop" by FY 05; to shorten project cycle times by actually going out and talking to applicants, rather than waiting for their professionals to send paper back and forth; to (as has been demanded by building pros for a generation) accept engineers' and architects' word that their sealed documents meet code requirements (although if this were always true, there'd be little need for development review); and to actually drag One Texas Center into the information age. (The city has twice tried to automate development review, with mediocre-to-disastrous results, and now has an outside info-tech consultant trying to "help [the system] live up to its potential," Futrell notes.)

"I do think these changes will cut 50% of the time and the complaints from the process," Futrell says -- although the official performance targets for the fast 'n' friendly effort are somewhat more modest -- "without reducing the level of review. We're going to change how we review projects, not what we review."

Whose Code to Be Broken?

Of course, not everyone is buying it. The clear-cutting of the development review jobs came mostly in the site-plan staff -- that is, the front end of the process, which many observers argue is the hardest part (because there are more variables in play, including zoning and environmental regulations) and where you need the most, and the most experienced, hands on deck to actually enforce all that Austin law requires. Indeed, it's been argued -- including in these pages -- that development review has consistently been understaffed and underfunded, hence the bad customer service and the reliance on paper shuffling instead of personal transactions.

So is it really possible to make as big a difference as Toby Futrell envisions without actually changing the code? Are her "21é2" parts the biggest parts, or are all the efficiencies and tech tools in creation but feeble beacons to light the dark recesses of the code and the other ancillary rules -- criteria manuals, neighborhood plans, and so on -- that make Austin, uh, special? We won't know for a while, but it's already being argued -- including (though anonymously) by past and present development review staff -- that only a wholesale revision of the code will make things right in the long-term.

The worry is that with their new mandate to be fast 'n' friendly, the One Texas Center staff will just let important code requirements slide. "Something this big in such an important area always makes me nervous," says Council Member Daryl Slusher. "But they understand the will of the council -- how important it is that we have strong environmental and neighborhood protections. I think it's a genuine and intelligent effort to deal with the situation." Then again, "Something that's been tried this many times, with such limited success, probably won't be solved in one fell swoop. So you've got to have some skepticism. But we'll probably make some progress." end story

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Development review, One Texas Center, Toby Futrell, Joe Pantalion, Daryl Slusher, fast 'n' friendly, one-stop shop, Will Wynn, Land Development Code

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