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Development Services move planned

Thursday, February 25, 2016 by Jo Clifton

When the Zucker Report came out in 2015, it offered a scathing analysis of the city’s planning and development review functions and compared Austin’s development and permitting processes unfavorably to many other cities, including San Antonio. One of the report’s recommendations was to move employees associated with the development and permitting process from One Texas Center, just across the river from City Hall, to another location where they could all be on one floor.

On Tuesday, Development Services Department Director Rodney Gonzales, who was appointed to help improve customer service as well as employee morale, revealed to City Council that city staff hopes to move everyone associated with the development review process to a facility that would be “conducive to providing excellent customer service.”

Although Gonzales had little else to say on the matter, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Greg Canally told the Austin Monitor that the city needs one stand-alone space on one floor for everyone involved in the development review process. Right now, those employees are spread out over five floors at One Texas Center, which is leased space.

The Zucker Report compared Austin’s arrangement unfavorably to that of San Antonio. According to the report, San Antonio “constructed a new two-story building for all the planning and development functions. Long-range planning and administration was located on the second floor, but all development and permitting functions along with public counters and meeting rooms are located on the first floor.”

Canally and city real estate officer Lauraine Rizer will be making a presentation to Council next week explaining why they think the city should move forward with a request for proposals to get a permanent building large enough to accommodate the recommendation.

“We have serious facilities issues that have been unaddressed for 20 years,” Canally said. “We have ended up leasing a large amount of space that has created incredible inefficiencies. Staffs are split up. We spend a lot of money doing finish-out. As an example, because we had no extra space when the auditor moved out of City Hall and went into Silicon Labs (a building on Cesar Chavez Street), we spent nearly half a million dollars on renovating the lease space even though we’re only going to be there for three years. That doesn’t even include the cost of the lease.”

He said Silicon Labs was unlikely to allow the city to continue to rent the auditor’s space after three years and that the city is also likely to lose its leased space at Travis County’s building on Guadalupe Street. The city’s Treasury Office, part of the Financial Services Department, is in the county building. Because there was no space at the current City Hall, the old City Hall or One Texas Center, the city has rented. However, Canally said the county has indicated that it will need that space soon.

“We spend about $4 million a year on leases. That same money can be used on a permanent building that we would own,” Canally said. The Monitor has heard rumors that the preferred site for the new facility is the Mueller development, far from City Hall.

However, Canally denied that city staff has a specific location in mind. “We haven’t really done any of the process for finding the space,” he said.

If Mueller is selected, there could be complaints from at least some of those involved in the permitting process.

One of the city’s busiest development attorneys, Richard Suttle, said he doesn’t think it’s important for all the development and permitting offices to be on the same floor. “I don’t think that’s an important component,” he said. “It’s more important for them to be close to downtown and close to City Hall because they’re constantly being called to City Hall to answer questions. If they were at Mueller, they would take 45 minutes to get downtown.”

Ron Thrower of Thrower Design, who also works on land development and zoning matters, said he had also heard the rumor about Mueller. “I don’t think it’s right to move that department that far away from City Hall,” he said, repeating Suttle’s sentiment. Thrower said the city should simply build a second building in the parking lot of One Texas Center or use the Faulk Library once the new library opens. The Austin History Center is currently slated to move into that space, however.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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