Letter to Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price from Jim Harris, Sept. 21, 2017
Published On: Sep 21 2017
September 21, 2017
Mayor Betsy Price
200 Texas Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Dear Mayor Price,
Thanks very much for the opportunity to meet with you on August 28 and experience a good dialogue regarding Fort Worth development policies. We trust this is the first step in working together to improve the development process, expedite building and developments, and save money as well as speed up revenue to the City.
The meeting we had was long overdue. All of the building and development community has been seriously challenged in dealing with the City of Fort Worth for a number of years. We know many communications have been made to you and Council members over the years but little has changed. Hopefully our meeting last month was a first step toward making progress in improving the Fort Worth development environment.
This letter to you isn’t intended to delve into the problems in a detailed manner, but to attempt to communicate to you a framework in which to work. I am recommending four areas that you and the Council should examine, either separately or together in detail.
1. Prior to the development boom of the early 1980’s the Development Department was established as a result of problems and a desire by the City to improve the development process and permit delivery. It was headed over the years by five pro-development directors (David Farrington, Keith Smith, Joe Bilardi, Ann Kovich and Bob Riley) whose responsibility was to stay on top of City policies and departments in order that the development process not be hindered. The department was one the best things the City ever did. Unfortunately, the real estate crash of 2007 essentially stopped new development, and the department lost its viability.
Under a new Mayor, City Council and City Manager in 2007, there was an effort to provide operational efficiencies, and the Development Department was merged with the Planning Department. Planners now run the department, and regulatory requirements have increased exponentially. While there has been significant discussion about eliminating operational approval “silos,” there remains a departmental passive-aggressive approach to project reviews and approvals. In my more than 40 years in this business, I’ve never yet known a planner who knew anything about the nuances of a development project or construction. In short, what was originally established to facilitate development no longer exists in Fort Worth. The City has a Development Facility function that is helpful in many instances but is not adequate. Some of its staff don’t have the knowledge, nor the respect of other departments, to get work done in an efficient manner, but it’s all we have at this time. This function should be brought under a reconstituted Development Department.
Therefore, it is my recommendation that an independent Development entity be reestablished and headed by a knowledgeable person who is empowered to expedite entitlements and deliver projects for construction.
2. The Development Advisory Committee was established about the same time as the Development Department. The committee was chaired by the head of the Transportation and Public Works Department. The approximately eight other members were developers, builders and engineers who were knowledgeable about the development and building business. Monthly meetings were held in order for members to discuss problems or issues important for the City to provide good service. After discussion, the chairman would later bring back solutions, if possible, to problems discussed previously. In addition, changes in planning and development policies desired by City departments were brought to the committee for discussion and recommendations. Only afterward were such changes implemented if most were in agreement. Many good policy changes were accomplished in this manner. It made the City and the development community a team working together to make Fort Worth more efficient and workable.
The DAC, as it is currently established, is useless as a mechanism for improving the development process and communicating issues between builders and the City. Rather than providing beneficial and carefully debated input, the committee has become a sounding board for staff initiatives that are seeking community acknowledgment prior to going forward to a board, commission or City Council for action. Most of the members aren’t knowledgeable, and others such as engineers who rely on municipal contracts or are concerned about staff retribution, are ineffective. Little discussion is held addressing real issues, and when such issues are raised, it takes far too long to find an acceptable resolution. Much of the meeting time is used up by the City staff telling what the City is doing without input from the committee. I strongly recommend a small, knowledgeable, committee be reestablished headed by a department head, or even the City Manager. Please remember this committee should work as a team to help the City.
3. There exists within the City staff a belief that residential development and new homes in new subdivisions “don’t pay for themselves.” This is an absurd opinion and needs to be changed. Such a belief existed in the City back in the ‘60s, and the City made development difficult. Development did occur but in suburban communities. The builders Fort Worth ran out of town, shifted their focus, and this helped to create Hurst, Bedford, Euless and Arlington. Then came the commercial development that always follows residential. Fort Worth lost out on that commercial growth including the regional malls that came in the ’70s. Today, Fort Worth is experiencing a retail/commercial boom along I-35W, and the property and sales tax growth is directly related to “greenfield” residential development that has occurred since 1987. Please don’t allow the City to fall into this trap again. Growth will happen and it should happen in Fort Worth. We should be concerned about our tax base and not send development to suburban communities that just contributes to more sprawl.
Residential infill development is the best and most cost-effective building that can occur in Fort Worth. It is also the costliest development a builder can do. Unfortunately, the City doesn’t work to encourage infill building, and at times it seems to go out of its way to make this more difficult when the City should do all in its power to encourage such building. A good place for this discussion to take place would be in a reconstituted DAC.
4. It’s been my observation over time that probably half of all business that comes before the Council involves a real estate issue, whether zoning, development or utility needs. The City is always under pressure to add regulations or code changes to properly facilitate these issues. I’m sure you’re aware that additions to the regulations usually means more personnel are needed, or more work is added to the existing staff. As you know, it’s very difficult to find and hire qualified people these days. We in the building and development business have been faced with labor shortages for several years. Now with the problems in Houston and Florida, and crackdowns on immigration, our labor problems will increase. You have these problems at the City as well.
With the workload the City staff has, as well as the pressure to “get out the work,” there sometimes occurs friction between staff and developers and builders. As a developer/builder myself, I know we are always pushing to get our projects through the system, and this can cause resentment in the very people we need to work with to get our projects approved. Please think twice when adding regulations with our labor problems. The Manager and department heads have to plan and work with staff so as not to create more friction. We need a better working relationship. Maybe with a proper DAC and a new Development Department we can try to smooth friction between your personnel and the building community. We should constantly strive toward teamwork and not conflict.
Mayor, the problems you have been hearing, and that I have outlined here, are systemic, broad and deep, and have been developing over many years. If desirable, there are many builders and developers who will gladly share horror stories about projects that were needlessly delayed, thereby costing both the builders and the City. The City loses when a project takes twice as long to be placed on the tax rolls. Appeals to the staff and even the Manager are generally ineffective in changing the negative environment. Improvement and change can only come from you and the Council. There is a negative culture at the City that needs changing. Cultures resist change. Such change can only come from the top. You must take charge. I was disappointed when you could only stay for a short time at our meeting last month and hope you can devote more of the time necessary to make progress.
I trust you, as well as Council members, will understand that we in the building business need your support. Please understand that we mean the best for Fort Worth, and we should function as a team to build our community in a fair and cost-efficient manner.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
James R. Harris Partners
cc: Carlos E. Flores
Kelly Allen Gray