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Tuesday, December 6, 2022
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Permitting Purgatory: Why is Dallas Development Slow to Catch Up With Competing Cities?

Development has picked back up in some North Texas cities, but not in Dallas.

“This is unbelievable!” 
“How is this behavior allowed?” 
“Someone needs to report this!”

Recently, my texts and LinkedIn mentions have been inundated with these and similar comments.  When you spend time on both the public and private side of development, folks tend to reach out and let you know their frustrations. 

Being a new contributor, let me give you a quick rundown on me.  For the last 15 years I have worked for municipalities in Texas and Missouri on planning and zoning projects and issues. I have most recently consulted developers working on projects and navigating them through the city processes.

This brings me back to the angry posts and texts. 

The root of them comes from the news among developers and consultants that the City of Dallas pre-development process is so backlogged that those folks are being told planning a meeting with staff is unavailable until fall at the earliest, depending on the project.

How is that possible in this day and age?  Easier than you think. 

For several years, the city has been short-staffed – especially in the crucial areas of development and permitting.  While COVID-19 has acerbated the situation, other communities have rolled with the punches and found a way to keep the fires burning so the steam engine of development never stops. 

Plano has moved to an almost completely digital permitting process.

Plano, a municipality where I once worked as a planner, has gone nearly completely digital. 

When you call asking for a pre-development meeting for your project in Plano, you are given the option of in-person or virtual. Submittals are done via digital format such as PDF.  Planners use the application Bluebeam to make and provide comments.  No more waiting for paper.  Everything is sent over for review almost immediately. 

The use of these tools has reduced turnaround time, with submittals to staff coming in around 10 days, and approvals for a project coming in around 30 days.  Anyone in development can tell you that is how things were ideally envisioned prior to the epidemic. 

One of the lingering impacts of what we have lived through this past 16-plus months is the push to digital, app-enabled, and online interfaces — the use of delivery services by restaurants, e-commerce, and now the digitalization of planning and development. 

While all these were coming, the advancements were incremental.  What was a five- to 10-year plan became less than a year. For some, it was 30 days.

Cowtown permitting hasn’t slowed down much since the pandemic.

This brings us to Dallas’ biggest competitor – Fort Worth. 

One view on their website shows you what could be in Dallas. 

A checklist graph on the main development page shows you what you need based on whether your project is new construction, an addition, a remodel, etc. 

Appointments can be scheduled via a scheduling option link, which offers phone meetings or Webex meetings (a Zoom-like format commonly used now by cities. Dallas uses it for city council meetings). 

In addition, Fort Worth has an online “permit status” dashboard. Just log in and there is your status on your project – no uncertainty. 

I would love to tell you Dallas has something close. 

But, no. 

While meetings are available via Webex, staff availability is pushing commercial pre-development meetings right now until October. Getting clarity on what is causing the long turnaround is near impossible. Responses from staff are all over the board. Will you hear in one business day? Two? Three?  Maybe. Could be longer. The unknown timeline is infuriating.

(Photo courtesy of Justin Terveen)

Over the last few years, the City of Dallas has been slowly phasing in a digital process. 

This process is mostly for reviewing and staff is still overwhelmed.  Council has approved consulting groups to assist at the request of leadership.  This was last summer. 

While the turnaround has improved the backlog, getting calls back and meetings to discuss are far out.  As the adage says, time is money.  Imagine having that consideration when your project is on hold for two to four months or more because city staff is not available for a simple pre-development meeting. 

For many developers around town, imagining is not necessary — it is a reality.  The solution so far has been for many to do development elsewhere. Waiting on Dallas’ timeline is too costly.  

Anyone in the development field tells you, this is an ominous sign for the City of Dallas, which is still in recovery.  We have seen that not everything will be easy.  Uber just cut their total jobs for the company’s Deep Ellum site by 2,500, reducing their expansion significantly. And many are taking notice of the impact. 

In April, the Dallas Morning News stated it simply:

“Dallas’ broken building permit process is robbing our tax base of millions in needed funds.”

We deserve better in Dallas. 

What solutions do we have? 

First, make your voice heard to our elected officials.  Staff, especially department leadership, needs to be held accountable. They need to provide us clear answers why after a year and a half into the pandemic we are still not prepared for a virtual development world. 

The time of excuses is over – Plano and Fort Worth show it can be done and quickly.  Much of these problems are the result of years and years of heads in the sand.  I can tell you as a former employee of the City of Dallas, it’s easier to kick the can down the line than addressing the hard truths of modernizing and embracing change.  Leadership has enforced this thought and now we are paying for those decisions. 

Next, get active in our local business community organizations.  Many are the best advocates and are trying to make change happen.  The bigger the voice, the harder it is to ignore. 

And finally — and most impactful — show up.  This means Dallas City Council, Planning and Zoning, and Board of Adjustment meetings. Come and be heard. Speak during public comments. 

Of course, the alternative is watching development move to the suburbs or to other communities.  The cost to Dallas if this occurs will be catastrophic.

Can we afford to wait? 

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