Apr 1, 2024 - News

Austin City Hall speeds its developmental review

Illustration of Austin City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Austin's city government, notorious for its labyrinthine permitting process, appears to be succeeding in slimming down its often long and confusing development reviews.

Why it matters: For Austinites who want to remodel their house or build a new one, the development process is arguably their most intimate window into city government.

  • Austin's regulatory delays translate into increased housing costs, stifle innovation and decrease development quality, and ultimately lead to construction outside the city limits, University of Texas researchers once found.

Driving the news: In March 2023, the turnaround time was 87 days for initial site plan reviews and 50 days for follow-up rounds, per Watson.

  • As of late March, the average response time for reviews was down to 27.7 days for the first round and 13.8 days for follow-up rounds.

Flashback: Austinites have long grumbled about the lack of transparency in city reviews, couching them as part of a busybody bureaucracy.

  • Nearly 180 respondents to a city-commissioned survey last year expressed general frustration with the city's site plan review process, giving it an average score of 3 out of 10.
  • That score lags behind satisfaction scores for mobile phone, car insurance, cable TV, and airline companies, per the McKinsey survey.

Drew Erdmann, a McKinsey consultant who authored the report, told the city council last August that he found 11 "siloed" departments whose work touched on the development review process.

  • City staffers polled by McKinsey said the review department had suffered from staff turnover and lack of mission clarity.

What happened: A cultural change.

  • "The department leaders (and those working there) have embraced a 'one city, one voice' approach that focuses on working collaboratively to serve customers," Austin Mayor Kirk Watson wrote in his most recent Watson Wire newsletter.

Between the lines: The efficiencies are a big feather in Watson's cap as he readies for a re-election campaign.

  • Watson had campaigned for the job promising common-sense government competency.
  • "When I first started asking about what needed my attention at City Hall, not a single person said to me, 'Watson, don't touch the development review process. It's working great,'" Watson wrote in his newsletter.

By the numbers: Every extra month of development review means more taxes, insurance, and debt service for the owner — translating into thousands of dollars more in home prices, Erdmann said last August.

The bottom line: The review time "speaks directly to our affordability emergency," Watson wrote.

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