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The Zucker Report: Deja Vu All Over Again

March 19, 2015

As real estate professionals working in Austin, we have long known that the city’s process for regulating our industry is broken. As of mid-March, it appears, City Hall is willing to agree. Right before spring break, City Manager Marc Ott announced a split of the current Planning and Development Review (PDR) department into two new groups: one handling zoning, land use policy, historic preservation, and the CodeNEXT project, and the other handling project-by-project review and inspection.

This may have a desirable effect, as the city manager’s memo to council suggests, by giving both new departments a manageable workload that allows them to find better ways of handling their important city business. But it’s hardly a given that Austin’s development process is on the road to recovery. Much more reform is needed.

This issue got thrust back into the news recently with the kerfuffle over releasing the “Zucker Report” — an outside consultant’s review of Austin’s development shop. In its draft form (which you can see here), the report includes language like “worst we have ever seen in any city” to describe perceptions of PDR by both external stakeholders and its own employees.

That’s especially scary when you realize that this same consultant, Paul Zucker, was brought to Austin to do the same review… during the Reagan Administration. He notes in the current draft report that “Many of the issues discussed in 1987 (some 27 years ago) still remain,” particularly our community’s adherence to what he called back then “the Austin Way” (what follows is from the 1987 report):

The so-called “Austin Way” contains an unhealthy dose of suspicion. This lack of trust became evident in the desire by both staff and citizens to over-document everything, to dot every “i” and cross every “t”, the tendency to create new commissions along with each new ordinance, unwillingness to delegate more decisions to staff and staff’s feelings that if they make a mistake, they may be crucified. In the long run every detail cannot be documented. This kind of system will break down and sink of its own weight. We are not suggesting that the Austin Way be abandoned, rather that it be kept in perspective.

Not only “staff” and “citizens” but also “developers” can agree with that assessment of Austin’s contemporary planning history, which includes several reorganizations of the kind that the city manager is now attempting. Embedded within this, of course, is the “us vs. them” attitude that creates the suspicion that Zucker observed nearly three decades ago, in which “developers” and “citizens” are obviously competing interests who couldn’t possibly agree on outcomes.

“Developers” are responsible for making the places where the large and ever-growing population of Austin will live and thrive. We need fair, predictable regulation that helps Austin remain a city of great places- on that I think most of the community is in agreement.  We also need a system that’s able to serve real estate professionals as customers, so we can in turn serve our customers, the people of Central Texas.  To make that happen, we need a code that isn’t weighed down by suspicion and the scars of past battles, once that can be effectively enforced, and we need regulatory and permitting processes that are efficient and user-friendly.

As the voice of the industry, we appreciate that Austin is taking a step in what appears to be the right direction, and certainly for the right reasons. But it’s up to us as advocates, citizens and neighbors to help keep Austin’s eyes focused on a long-term successful outcome, where our community’s vision is made possible by a development code and process that works for everyone.

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