The Austin City Council on Thursday will consider issuing about $122 million in debt to buy a 5-acre parking lot at the former Highland Mall to be developed into a one-stop shop for resident’s permitting and development needs.
If approved, the new Planning and Development Center would realign where city staff are located by moving more than 400 employees from the overcrowded One Texas Center, just south of downtown, to several miles from City Hall in an area adjacent to the Austin Community College Highland Campus.
It would also make room for more staff to help reduce wait times for residents who need assistance.
The proposed site is a parking lot just east of the ACC campus at East Highland Mall Boulevard and Middle Fiskville Road that used to serve the now-defunct North Austin mall. The proposal calls for a 264,000-square-foot office building to be built at the site.
The lion’s share of the relocated employees would be from the Development Services Department, which occupies five floors of One Texas Center. Space in that facility has grown tight as the department has grown over the years. To make room, the department has converted some conference rooms into makeshift offices and forced some employees to double up in offices.
“We are elbow to elbow,” said Sylvia Arzola, a Development Services spokeswoman. “We are literally out of space. There is no room for expansion.”
Development Services has also requested 51 new employees under next year’s proposed budget. About 80 percent of those new hires would focus on reducing wait times and reviewing plans, Arzola said.
Staff also hope the project would address a cumbersome permitting process at Development Services that was excoriated in a city report from 2015. The controversial Zucker report found that wait times were over an hour for walk-in customers with residential plan reviews.
That report led the city to split the troubled Planning and Development Review Department into two departments, Planning and Zoning and Development Services. Both would be housed in the new facility along with ancillary staff from other departments such as the Austin Fire Department, Austin Energy and Austin Water that work closely with planning and development staff, Arzola said.
If approved, the city would pay for the project by issuing debt that it would pay back starting in fiscal 2020 with annual payments of about $9.7 million.
The debt wouldn’t be part of any voter approved bond package. Instead, the City Council would directly approve the issuance of the debt in certificates of obligation that are permitted under certain circumstances.
Documents show that Thursday’s proposal would be the largest single issuance of certificates of obligation in recent years. Since 2014, the city has issued $162,655,000 in certificates to fund 12 projects that ranged from a $450,000 transportation project to a $50,000,000 watershed project. Already in 2017, the city has sold $62,250,000 in certificates.
Documents indicate that the debt would be paid back by property taxes and could lead to half-cent increases or more to the tax rate. However, staffers said the debt would be repaid entirely by customer fees generated by the planning and development departments.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she supports the project because it appears that it will pay for itself over time and that building the facility will be cheaper than leasing space, something the city is trying to limit.
“Financially it makes sense to me,” Troxclair said. “It puts a lot of departments under one roof and streamlines operations.”