The City of Austin Permitting and Development Center elevates the public’s experience of civic processes.
Project City of Austin Permitting and Development Center
Client City of Austin
Design-Builder/Developer Ryan Companies
Civil Engineer Stantec Consulting
Structural Engineer Walter P Moore
MEP Engineer EEA
Waterproofing Curtainwall Design Consulting
Code Consultant Jensen Hughes
Parking Consultant PARC
Vertical Transportation Persohn/Hahn Associates
Acoustical, AV & Security Shen Milsom & Wilke
Landscape Architect TBG
The city of Austin’s new Permitting and Development Center opened in July 2021, just after COVID-19 vaccines had become available and a version of public life was restoring itself. But to tell the whole story of this complex integrated design and architecture project, we have to go back to March 2015. In that month, the city of Austin published the Zucker Report, an extensive document outlining the problems with the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. The permitting process had become slow and unwieldy, and the report highlighted the unnecessary complexities of the city’s development codes. While there was some disagreement among stakeholders about the particulars of the report, it was clear something needed to be done. “Coming out of that report, they recommended that we should have a single building … where all of the review would happen,” says Andy Moore, manager of the city of Austin’s Public Private Partnership Program. “As it went to council to get approval for the money, the city manager directed us to include all 14 different departments in the review process in the building.”
The location selected for this significant city project? Highland Mall — once home to the first African American school in Texas, the first air-conditioned mall in Austin, and now home to an innovative Austin Community College (ACC) campus. “The city wanted to support this type of development,” says the project’s lead architect, Luis Santi-Merayo, a design director and principal at Gensler. “They wanted to make it a walkable community.” The building sits at the edge of the Highland Mall development, just east of the ACC campus. Beside it, there is a large parcel of land that may eventually be developed as well. For now, the four-story building sits on the fringe of the re-imagined neighborhood, but it could become more central in several years as the pace of development continues.
Because Austin is home to high-profile tech employers like Google and Facebook, the city has had concerns about employee retention. One of the goals of the new permitting building was to create a space more like a tech office, with flexible workspaces, patios, and even a gym in the parking garage. Except for the first floor, the space is arranged as a familiar combination of open office space and closed conference rooms. Floor-to-ceiling windows on all levels let in abundant light and invite the attention of the public. They also enliven the building’s dark brick facade.
Visitors exit the parking garage (which includes 16 electric vehicle charging stations) directly into the building’s central courtyard. They then enter a two-story central atrium, which houses the office’s single front desk. Above the desk is a dramatic piece of colorful contemporary art titled “Aurorae”; it was selected by Moore himself and designed by art studio FYOOG. The first floor is almost entirely public, designed to be a comfortable space for city departments to interface with members of the community. A bank of elevators heading to the more private office spaces on the second, third, and fourth floors sits in the middle of the lobby.
Bringing 14 municipal departments under one roof would involve challenges beyond design, and a new building alone would not be sufficient to accomplish all the changes necessary to improve the city’s permitting process. When Gensler was selected for the project, it wasn’t to merely design the building. The firm’s Digital Experience Design department played a major role in the process and outcomes of the project, one that was about building a new home for the city’s permitting departments as well as improving the workflows and processes used by city employees.
“Most permitting processes aren’t a great joy for everyone to begin with,” says Bonnie Reese, a senior associate at Gensler and co-lead of the firm’s digital experience design strategy. “But Austin got a very low score and recognized they needed to create a better customer experience for the citizens of Austin. They came to Gensler and said they wanted to bring several departments together into a new state-of-the-art, customer-service-driven building.”
Though Reese isn’t an architect, she comes from a background focused on understanding human behavior, and her suggestions and improvements directly impacted many of the project’s design decisions. With Reese’s insights, a new office culture was being drafted. One major element of these process changes included a challenge to go paperless. Pre-pandemic, this was seen as a dramatic shift that would take up to two years to implement. But the impact of COVID changed that timeline. Says Moore: “As we were completing the building, we got to the point where COVID hit, and we were three months from completing the project. The city itself shifted to an online process for permits to be submitted and reviewed, which ended up being a real opportunity for us.” After four weeks, the city’s processes were officially paperless, and the permit review process was irrevocably changed.
The choice to go paperless rippled through other design decisions. Individual desks were made smaller at the new 8-by-8-foot workstations as employees would no longer need as much room to spread out materials. Paper storage in the building is minimal, and there are only seven printers in the 251,000-sf space.
While some of the building’s process changes made the transition to the post-2020 office environment smoother in ways that feel almost prophetic, others have not been so successful. The building was originally intended for 900 employees, but in the current hybrid working world, it is only at about 30 percent occupancy on a typical day. The first-floor’s public spaces sit empty as well. Terminals intended for conversations between city employees and members of the public aren’t being used, and the large cafe space, meant for employees and members of the public alike, has been unable to draw enough business to sustain a food service provider and currently lacks a tenant.
The spaces that are being used frequently are the event spaces and conference rooms, available by reservation for civic groups and public activities. Detached from the main building and opening onto an expansive courtyard with trees and native plants, the main event space can be divided into three rooms or used as one large ballroom. Beneath the courtyard’s idyllic lawn is a rainwater collection system.
There was an opportunity, and a desire, to use this building to set the standard for future city construction projects, and to use it as a proving ground to illustrate the ways building certifications for health/wellness and sustainability could be earned on a more modest budget. According to Reese: “The city of Austin really wanted to showcase its values and its commitment to people and the environment. How can we make sure we’re building a best-in-class building when it comes to sustainable practices? How can we build a process and building and everything else so that citizens are going to say, that was really easy – thanks for thinking of me.”
The state’s first blackwater recycling system, one of only three in the country, sits outside along with a cistern for capturing rainwater. The two tanks, nicknamed OSCAR (On-Site Collection and Reuse) and CLARA (Closed-Loop Advanced Reclaimed Assembly) will help save over one million gallons of drinking water each year and reduce the site’s potable water use by 75 percent. Notably, the project has also achieved an Austin Energy Green Building (AEGB) four-star certification and is the first WELL Gold certified building in Austin.
The baseline needs for city construction projects have changed since 2019: The AV requirements for conference rooms, for example, are much more specific, with the need for stakeholders to be able to join meetings remotely. Air quality has become a concern, so UV filtration systems are essential. But many of the project’s big swings are set to become the city’s new normal. “Our standard requirement — we’re looking at [the AEGB three-star rating] or LEED Silver [certification] and a similar standard for [WELL Building],” says Moore. “And we find that, because of the internal policies that we have … we hit those levels really quickly, so getting up to a four-star or gold is not insurmountable. It doesn’t add that much more to the cost, so we’re walking the talk that we set out as an organization to achieve, and we feel that is a way for us to help our design community [and] our developer community to show that it can be done in a cost-effective manner.
In the meantime, the transition to the new building and the new processes is still a work in progress. “People get attached to their processes, and we were trying to unify the process,” says Reese. “The mechanism for this was a challenge. Each [department] had their own front desk, and one of the customer-centered things the building did in its design was to create one front desk that manages a lot of complexity. It requires bringing everyone along in the process to arrive at a solution that feels right to everyone.” Still, three years into a new normal, the Permitting and Development Center is well on its way to realizing a more perfect union between process and design, and between the city and the public.
Alyssa Morris is a freelance writer based in Austin.