After developer backlash, a new city process will determine what construction is ‘essential’ in Austin
The coronavirus pandemic has paralyzed much of Austin’s commercial activity, but not all. Construction has continued at multiple sites, although the city of Austin wants non-essential construction to shut down.
Editor’s note: The city of Austin on April 2 reversed course and said all construction can continue after executive action taken statewide by Gov. Greg Abbott. For more, go here.
After nearly a week of turmoil, the city of Austin has figured out how it will decide what construction can go forward during the coronavirus pandemic.
Austin’s Development Services Department Director Denise Lucas announced March 30 the city has developed an administrative process for approving construction activities under Austin’s shelter-in-place order.
The March 24 order generally prohibited residential and commercial construction as part of an effort to ramp down non-essential travel and commercial activity to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But the restrictions set off a wave of dissent in the business community, angered over a lack of clarity on what projects fell in the order’s exemptions and why Austin took a hardline stance against construction when other cities didn’t. During last week’s Council meeting, Austin Mayor Steve Adler promised more clarity from the city government.
Lucas said the city is forming a committee to review and approve requests for designating what is an “essential construction project.”
“The committee will meet to review requests and determine if the referenced project meets criteria for exemption from the order to cease operation. … If the project is designated essential, operations may continue,” Lucas said. “Approved projects must [still] comply with social distancing requirements.”
“If the project is designated as non-essential, operations must cease,” she added. “The committee will notify the project owner and provide time for the project to be safely shut down.”
Lucas said no appeals process is set up, meaning the committee’s decisions are final. Enforcement actions may be taken if non-essential projects continue after a date determined by the committee, Lucas said.
The committee will include city staff members from the city’s legal, code, fire, public works, economic development and neighborhood housing and community development departments. Lucas and the city’s building official are also on the committee. Here’s more information on the city’s new process.
Builders, developers and project managers are encouraged to apply online for their project to be designated as an essential construction activity. That form can be found here.
Here’s a supplemental guidance document from the city on the new process, which clarifies that construction work by a single worker who is the sole employee or worker on a job site may proceed.
The guidance document also goes into greater detail about what counts as an exempt project for infrastructure, affordable housing or essential business. For example, residential projects that provide payment in lieu of on-site affordable housing units do not count as affordable housing projects that may continue.