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Austin’s Development Review Issues Must Be Solved Now

July 13, 2015

For not just years but decades, real estate professionals have known that Austin’s development review process is among the worst in the nation when it comes to grievous delays, inconsistent standards, and poor service. Consultant Paul Zucker delivered his scathing report — highlighting problems he’d first diagnosed back in the 1980s — earlier this year, and last Friday, the city manager delivered a 204-page action plan to fix what’s broken.

The city’s “Roadmap for Building a Better Austin” aims to make numerous changes that “will bring about a shift to a customer-focused culture.” This shouldn’t be a revolutionary goal, but Austin’s development process has been bedeviled for a long time by confusion over who the customer is. It’s part of what Zucker in his first report, 30 years ago, dubbed “the Austin way” — the notion that staff’s job is to make development difficult so that we can keep Austin weird, or something.

This was a dubious enough proposition in calmer times. But right now, with a robust and enduring jobs and population boom and skyrocketing demand, it’s downright insane for the city not to facilitate new development that addresses our housing shortage. At RECA, we’ve called for and the mayor has adopted that at least 100,000 new homes are needed in the next 10 years, which shouldn’t be that difficult a goal for a market of our size and popularity, especially when more than 110 people are moving here every single day. But we’ve never done it before, and we won’t achieve it now unless we have a quick, smart approach to development review.

Some of the problems can be traced back to the land development code itself, which is also broken and thus difficult for city staff to implement, and which is being overhauled via the CodeNEXT effort. But even fairly simple projects can get stalled for weeks and months in the development review pipeline, which just drives up costs that end up being passed on to renters and buyers.

The Zucker report and the city’s roadmap reveal, in depressing detail, just how damaged the development review departments have become internally — understaffed, underresourced, undermotivated. Much of the city’s action plan is focused on simply making One Texas Center a better place to work, as well as a better place for customer service.

While new leadership and an infusion of new positions will do a lot of good, it’s also vital that the city’s executive team and the City Council treat development review with the respect and importance it deserves. Decisions made now in response to the Zucker report will, quite literally, shape the Austin of the future.

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