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ZAP hears about development review changes

Wednesday, August 27, 2003 by

Pantalion admits task will be difficult with budget cuts

The Zoning and Platting Commission got an advance look Tuesday night at plans to streamline the city’s development review process. The red tape accompanying getting projects approved by the city was frequently criticized by several mayoral candidates earlier this year, including Mayor Will Wynn. However, budget cuts are spurring the changes as much as a desire to make the process more user-friendly.

“We want to create a faster, friendlier development review process and maintain code compliance. As we go into next year . . . we’re just changing the way we do business,” said Joe Pantalion, Acting Director of Watershed Protection and Development Review (WPDR). However, Pantalion noted that the task would be difficult considering that the department is losing $1 million in funding for salaries in the land development review permitting program. That amounts to a net reduction of 22 positions, with another three being transferred out of the department. Twelve of the positions eliminated were vacant and the department is gaining some positions through consolidation with the Health and Human Services Department and Water and Wastewater Utility.

In order to adopt a “one-stop shop” for applicants, inspectors will be cross-trained to handle a number of different tasks. By fiscal year 2004-05, many of the employees associated with development review will either be consolidated into one department or co-located at one facility. “Right now, we’re kind of set up for the convenience of the individual departments to have their staff members reside with them,” said Pantalion. “We’re kind of turning that upside down for the benefit of the customer. Logistically, it’s a lot to do and that’s why we’re doing it over two years.”

In the meantime, the department will work to shift from its reliance on impersonal paperwork to more one-on-one communication with applicants. “We have an over-emphasis on paper compliance, rather than field compliance where it really matters,” Pantalion said. “When you consider how we communicate with a majority of the applicants, it’s through the exchange of paper comments and the re-submittal of plans.

All that leads to unclear permitting expectations both from the applicant and the community.” As part of that effort, inspectors will make visits to the site much earlier in the process. That will allow the inspector and contractor to work through any differences between what was shown on the plans and actual field conditions, sooner rather than later. “They have a meeting and go out to the field and talk about what compliance means for that site. Compliance is defined early, and by defining compliance early it’s easier to get compliance on the plans and better plans will come in from the very beginning,” Pantalion said. “If there are any corrections, what we want to do is have a majority of those corrections made in the field.”

Several of the changes are aimed at speeding up the process overall. “We’re proposing to reduce our average cycle time by 20 percent—from 160 days to 128 days—for our review teams,” he said. “In other cities, they are somewhat faster.” That will include reaching out to applicants if their cases are taking too long. “If too much time has gone by without a response to city comments, we’re going to call the applicant to make sure that there’s no issue with the comments,” Pantalion said. “If there are issues, we’re going to force that issue resolution much faster so we can expedite the process . . . or if they don’t have any issues, we can at least document that, so they’re moving on their own time frame.” Improving communication with other interested parties will also be a high priority. The department plans to use new computer software to provide consistent information about any given project to applicants, agents and neighbors.

Officials with WPDR have already made presentations about the proposed changes to several community groups. Another presentation is scheduled for today at noon before the Downtown Austin Alliance, followed by the Planning Commission tonight at 6:00pm. They will also be discussed during the City Council’s budget hearing tomorrow night. Approval of the new procedures will be part of the overall vote on the city’s budget next month.

County approves final details of Domain deal

Rebates to be suspended if jobs fall below 750

Travis County officials put the final touches on the incentive agreement for The Domain at yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting.

The changes were so minor that representatives from Endeavor Real Estate Group, the developers of the North Austin mixed-use development, did not come to the meeting. Most of the points were finalized by fax among the lawyers.

Assistant County Attorney Mary Etta Gerhardt outlined the changes to the Commissioners Court: The reimbursement schedule was stricken from the agreement because it failed to reflect the true timing of payments and there was clarification on how long Endeavor would have to maintain records and reports of the company’s progress.

The revised agreement also outlined the county’s procedures should Endeavor fall below the required 750 jobs the company has promised to create. Under the agreement, reimbursements would be suspended if jobs fall below 750.

The contract with Endeavor is the first major incentive package Travis County has considered in a number of years. Under the agreement, Endeavor has agreed to invest $100 million in taxable property and create 1,110 permanent full-time jobs. The Domain will include 300 residential units to be set aside for affordable housing. The company also agreed to make good faith efforts to contract with historically underutilized businesses.

Endeavor has agreed to start construction on The Domain within two years, or four years with Commissioners Court approval. The company must submit a phasing plan to Commissioners Court. Reimbursements of ad valorem taxes will begin upon completion of the first phase of the project. Endeavor will provide annual updates to the court.

The county agrees to rebate Endeavor up to $5 million in ad valorem taxes each year for meeting the terms of the agreement. The county will rebate half the taxes on the value of the land added to the tax roll by Endeavor once construction commences. The term of the contract is 20 years and can be canceled for non-performance.

DAA ready to invest in retail survey

The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA)—with a little help from the city—plans to hire a consulting team this fall to survey a 150-block area of downtown Austin. The DAA hopes the survey will “provide a framework for the development of a strong retail component in downtown Austin, strengthening the existing retail base and adding complementary retail,” according to the Request for Proposals.

The Downtown Commission has endorsed a proposed agreement between the DAA and the city to do the survey and market downtown retail space. The only odd part of the equation is why so much first-floor retail storefront space remains vacant in downtown Austin.

The scope of the work would include inventories of both infrastructure and downtown retail. Other tasks would include a retail analysis, a market strategy of comparable-sized cities and identifying any barriers to entry into the downtown Austin market. The DAA has asked the city to put up $50,000, an amount already set aside for consultant fees in a past budget. The DAA will pay the balance of the tab, expected to be in the neighborhood of $120,000. The matter is on this week’s Council agenda.

The DAA’s representative to the board, Tim Finley of the Finley Company, said the DAA’s goal is to provide a tool that can benefit property owners and potential investors. He pointed to the Second Street retail corridor as one place that could reap the rewards of a proper analysis of downtown retail.

“We’ve got an empty block down there with so many other projects going up around it,” Finley said. “None of the individual property owners in the DAA would be able to make the kind of investment to do this type of study, but the DAA can provide it for them.”

A property owner wants to be able to tell an out-of-town prospect something more than “there are a lot of nightclubs and bars down there,” Finley said.

The Downtown Commission a short discussion prior to the vote. Some members of the commission, like developer Robert Knight, wanted to make sure the survey would not be too prescriptive. And retailer Bruce Willenzik, who runs the Armadillo Bazaar out of the Austin Music Hall, wanted to be assured the study would not force Austin to take a “cookie cutter” approach to retail. The retail of the suburbs, Willenzik said, is not going to be the retail that makes downtown a thriving retail destination.

The final compromise was to offer something a little shy of an “enthusiastic endorsement.” The commission also agreed to offer its parameters and recommendations in writing to the DAA, rather than amending its endorsement with contingencies about this kind of retail or that kind of study.

In the decades before the shopping mall and big box retailers, downtown Austin was a thriving retail district that served most of Austin’s neighborhoods. Within a few blocks of Congress and Sixth Street, the city had Scarboroughs, Yarings, Levines, JC Penney, Sears Roebuck, Woolworth, Western Auto and Kress, as well as more than 100 smaller retailers, most selling clothing or home goods.

By 1960, construction of the city’s first shopping mall, Capital Plaza, was completed. Hancock Center was built in 1964, followed by Highland Mall in 1971 and Northcross Mall in 1975. By the mid-70s, retailers had begun to pull out of downtown Austin. By the time Barton Creek Mall opened in 1981, only 3 miles from downtown, retail had all but ended on Congress Avenue. Today, only a dozen retailers are located on Congress Avenue.

Under the timeline set out by the DAA, the request for proposals from consultants will go out this week. A contract should be finalized in October; an infrastructure inventory would be completed by January; and a retail inventory could be in place by February. A draft report would be due in March and focus group meetings on the draft plan would be scheduled for next summer.

The Downtown Commission did ask the DAA to update them on the retail study’s progress. Once the study is completed, the DAA will consider a full-scale marketing plan for downtown, on the scale of other success strategies initiated by the cities of New Orleans and Memphis.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Wal-Mart on I-35 case postponed . . . Richard Suttle, Wal-Mart’s attorney, had no objections last night to a request from the Park Ridge Homeowners Association to postpone consideration of a zoning change for a new superstore at Slaughter and I-35. The Zoning and Platting Commission will take up the matter again on September 9. Suttle said he did not object to the postponement because he believes he is making progress in talks with the neighborhood group. The proposed store would provide its normal range of merchandise, plus a deli, bakery, produce, a garden center and a tire/lube express service. Wal-Mart hopes to begin construction late this year or early next year. Opponents of the Wal-Mart proposed for Slaughter and MoPac plan to fight every Wal-Mart needing city approvals in order to stress their opposition to the one over the aquifer . . . Environmental impact statement for SH45SE under fire . . . An attorney for the MoPac Boulevard Alliance has written a lengthy and scathing review of the draft environmental impact statement for the road connecting I-35 to SH130. Amy Johnson says the EIS assumes that the road will meet up with SH45SW—a road the City of Austin has repeatedly said should not be built . . . Planning Commission meets tonight . . . The Planning Commission will consider a number of zoning changes as well as recommendations to give the city’s Downtown Commission authority to review matters including the vacation of downtown streets and to make waivers of parking requirements appealable to the City Council. The Zoning and Platting Commission grants those waivers. The Downtown Commission currently has no authority over land use issues . . . Employees honored . . . Tuesday was Travis County Employee Recognition Day. Employees with 20, 25 and 30 years of service to the county were recognized. The 30-year honorees included Robert Patterson of Civil Courts, Michael Kilgore of Probate Court and Susan Carrero of the county’s Emergency Medical Services Department . . . Pro Texas 11 TV ads . . . reported having raised nearly 96 percent of its goal of $1 million to be used to broadcast commercials in favor of the 11 Senate Democrats who spent the last month in Albuquerque. raises funds through Internet appeals . . . The Core Committee of the Regional Planning Committee for the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer will meet at the Dripping Springs City Hall from 7 to 9pm tonight. The agenda includes consideration of a request for proposals for hiring a consultant and discussion of comments public comments received thus far . . . Telecomm meeting today . . . The City Council committee on Telecommunications Infrastructure is scheduled to meet at 3pm today in Room 304 of City Hall.

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