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Controversial Zucker Report released on Austin’s planning department

What we reported

The American-Statesman first reported Feb. 23 about the efforts of neighborhood activists to get a draft copy of the Zucker Report, a consultant’s review of the problems in Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department. The city initially refused to release the draft, then provided a heavily redacted version, showing only organizational charts and tables. After several council members urged the report’s release, the city posted it online Thursday night.

What does the public think of the department?

As part of the review, consultant Paul Zucker sent an email survey to people who had interacted with Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department. Among the 310 who responded:

  • 66 percent said the department wasn’t as fair or practical in applying rules as other cities.
  • 82 percent said the review process is unnecessarily cumbersome or complex.
  • 72 percent said review services weren’t completed by the date promised.

Among the comments of those surveyed:

• “Have to hire a consultant to handle PDRD as they are so difficult to work with. Cost about 1 percent of job.”

• “It took 423 days to get a site plan permit, and we only received when Mayor Pro Tem scheduled to speak at ground breaking.”

• “There are too many departments and they disagree too often. There is no hierarchy of who controls the decisions when the code and design guidelines conflict.”

• “Absolutely horrible experience every time department is engaged. Everyone has a different answer or direction.”

A nearly 700-page draft report that highlights problems within Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department, such as slow permit approvals, a micromanaging department head and poor communication, was quietly published online Thursday after several neighborhood advocates pestered the city into releasing it early.

The long-awaited report lists 464 specific recommendations for improving the 324-person department, which is one of the highest-profile and most powerful city departments because of the role it plays in shaping Austin’s development. But the department is routinely criticized by nearly everyone who interacts with it, from housing developers who complain about abnormally sluggish permit approvals, to longtime Austin residents who say the staffers are too cozy with developers. The report is being done in conjunction with a rewrite of the city’s land development code.

The consultant who wrote the report, Paul Zucker, whose California-based company will be paid $250,000 for this review, even commented on the level of civic unhappiness in a section on customer feedback: “We note that the negative responses we received in this survey are the worst we have seen in our national studies, including many Texas communities.”

In the draft report, Zucker is pushing the city to spend $3.5 million to implement his suggestions, mainly to hire more than two dozen extra staff and temporary contract workers to help speed up the response time on site plan and permit approvals, but also to pay for training and extra equipment, such as cellphones for building inspectors and furniture upgrades.

The report’s release came after several neighborhood advocates affiliated with the Austin Neighborhoods Council had tried in January to obtain copies of it through open records requests. The city only released heavily redacted versions, citing an open records exemption dealing with policy recommendations.

Mary Ingle, head of the neighborhoods council, said she was concerned the city was trying to soften the report.

After Mayor Steve Adler and several City Council members made public statements urging the report’s release, the city took the unprecedented step Thursday of putting the entire draft report online, including comments made from city staff in the margins — offering a rare insight into city operations.

“While I disagree with releasing draft versions of consultant information without proper vetting, it’s important for me to make it clear this entire process was done with the utmost professionalism and integrity,” Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards said in a memo Thursday to the City Council. The city also pushed back against perceptions that it was trying to change the report’s language: “In no way does the city ever seek to influence the analysis, opinion or findings of hired consultants,” the city said in a written statement.

Problems and fixes

Among his 464 suggestions, Zucker highlighted 73 as “high priority.” Those include big-picture suggestions, such as changing the department’s culture, as well as very specific and seemingly simple solutions, such as returning all phone calls and emails within the same day and adding more scanners for development plans, instead of 20 people sharing a single scanner.

Given Zucker’s extensive conversations with department staffers — he met with 274 employees — some of the report has the feel of a department wish list, with such goodies as extra training and more staff, as well as complaints about upper management. “Employees are very unhappy about the direction and leadership of the department,” Zucker wrote.

Zucker suggests hiring a deputy director to oversee operations and encourages department head Greg Guernsey to delegate responsibilities, such as presenting zoning items to the council or overseeing complex grandfathering issues on land use decisions.

Overall, Zucker’s recommendations will probably be welcomed by real estate developers who want swifter site plan and permit application approvals.

For instance, in a section on residential plan reviews, Zucker disputed the city’s claim that the average wait time was 15 minutes for walk-in customers. In fact, he said, “the actual time to serve 90 percent of all of the customers was 1 hour and 3 minutes.” Zucker suggested hiring temporary contract employees to help with a backlog of plan reviews.

The report also touched on the complexity of Austin’s land development codes. Staffers told Zucker “Austin’s processes are so complex that it takes a year to understand or get proficient in the process,” he wrote.

Zucker said staffers complained about learning of zoning change requirements “when a customer advises them that they are not interpreting the zoning code properly.”

Real Estate Council of Austin President Ward Tisdale said he hasn’t read the report in depth, but what he’d seen “validates much of what we’ve been saying about this department.”

“This report confirms that delays are a significant problem and ultimately those delays add costs, which are passed on to the consumers,” he said.

City staff edits

By taking the unusual step of posting the Zucker report in draft format, it’s possible to see what the city wants Zucker to change in the report.

Most of the comments from city staff were focused on typos or inaccurate numbers or statements, but there were points on which Zucker and staffers sharply disagreed — which might provide ammunition to neighborhood groups that feared the city was trying to soften the report.

For instance, in an overview chapter of the department’s problems, the report says “concerns have been relayed” that services from the city’s law department have been inadequate, while also noting that the city attorney’s office has warned that it “may file a complaint to the state bar association about the work of PDR staff members.”

But that passage is highlighted for change or removal by city staff, with this comment: “Recommend that you generalize. The point is that PDRD does not have adequate legal support and additional resources are required.”

The city wants to revamp the entire chapter on land use review. A city staff comment says: “As mentioned on the phone, we feel this chapter needs a stronger overview as the other chapters, different organization and a substantial review of grammar and typos … we are providing a suggested outline.”

A section on upper management in a chapter on the permit center noted that employees gave their supervisors very low scores that Zucker described as “among the worst we have seen.” The city staff wants to edit it to just say scores “were very low,” with Planning and Development Review Department Assistant Manager George Adams saying the “tone is harsh.”

The city plans to release a final version of the report in late March.

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