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With Its First Pop-Up Permitting Event, Dallas’ Development Department Looks to Change Its Perspective

New Dallas Director Andrew Espinoza says a change in perspective is renewing his department, and he believes it will ultimately help fix the permitting mess.
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The permitting process with the city of Dallas has (rightfully) taken a lot of drubbing over the past couple of years. A lot. It’s been really bad for a really long time, and was the main motivation for a failed attempt to fire the city manager.

But this is not one of those stories. 

First, a little review might be in order: Until recently, the city’s development services department had been without leadership for almost two years. That is shown in the extreme dissatisfaction voiced by just about anyone who has had to get a building permit. But in May, the city named Andrew Espinoza, who had been working as an interim code compliance director since February, its new director of development services. He’s been with the city for about three years, and prior to that helmed the development services department in San Antonio for 17 years.

Last week, the department announced its first pop-up permitting event, which will allow contractors and DIYers to potentially walk out with permits for less complicated jobs like swimming pools, fences, and other small projects. 

The first event will happen on July 23 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the department’s offices at 320 E. Jefferson Blvd. If all goes well, it will continue every third Saturday of the month, Espinoza told me Friday.

“You can come in and we’re going to try to do everything we can to help you with these little simple permits, things that should be quick hits,” Espinoza explained. “And what it’s going to do is it’s going to free up some of the time that we typically spend during the week trying to address these types of issues, so we can now focus on some of those more complex, complicated projects that kind of sometimes take longer to perform.”

In his June 24 memo to the city council, Espinoza said that his team took an average of 61 days to issue new single-family permits, a three-day increase from April. That slight increase, he said, was because of ongoing technology and software issues that “prevented staff from issuing permits for several days.” His team, he said, is working overtime on weekends and evenings to clear the backlog and improve approval times.

“This is going to be our first pop-up Saturday. We’ve never done it before that I’m aware of in the history of Dallas and our goal is to repeat it every third Saturday, try it out as a pilot, and if the customers or residents, and the contractors like it, we want to continue it.”

He is working to fill out his team and vendors to create a less “one-size-fits-all” approach for the various entities that cross paths with the department.

Which, he says, is where the pop-up permit event comes into play—it just doesn’t make sense that a fence permit is in the same queue, waiting, as the contractor building an apartment complex.

“We have folks building 80-story high-rise buildings downtown, and then you have a small contractor building a custom home, and those two services are completely different,” he said. “You have to be able to provide those services in an equitable manner and say, ‘OK, we understand that time is money for you, here’s what we’re going to do for you.’ We don’t want to say one-size-fits-all because it doesn’t, and I think our customers are going to appreciate that.”

Espinoza said his team is actually really excited about the first pop-up. Much of the discussion in the department is about improving engagement with the public and fostering more collaboration with homeowners and builders “so they can feel like the city is really trying to partner” with them.

But it’s not just pop-up permitting, either. Espinoza said he’s taken some pages from his time in San Antonio, where he looked for a way to help specific, high-touch stakeholders have fixed points of contact, which also frees up staff to work with the public more, and ensures that more is streamlined.

One such effort, he said in his most recent memo, was to hire a third-party vendor, Bureau Veritas, to provide a dedicated team for Dallas ISD’s projects, which are numerous and often have specific requirements.  Hiring the third-part vendor creates a support system for the district.

“Part of our initiative is to kind of boost up these services because what we need to do with DISD is kind of shepherd them through the process,” he said, adding that in San Antonio, he had specific teams that worked only with hospitals, or schools, or other types of projects with a lot of moving parts and specialized requirements. Moving Dallas ISD to its own team, he said, made the most sense as his team works to address the backlog of permits, technology issues, and its own mindset.

In fact, as we wrapped up our call, Espinoza stressed again that one of the biggest changes he was seeing in his department is a change in perspective.

“If we focus on the team, the customers, and our residents, the performance will follow,” he said. “I think we kind of fell short because we were just thinking, ‘this is just a permit, that’s just a permit, it’s just a permit,’ and that kind of mindset has really hurt us. Shifting the organizational culture is what is going to get us the performance.”

Some of the department’s harshest critics are now meeting with Espinoza and providing feedback. (The Dallas Builder’s Association even went so far as to praise Espinoza’s hiring.) His team seems to be re-energized.

“We’re not here to issue permits, we’re not here to perform inspections, we’re not here to review plans,” he said. “Were here to serve the community, and we’re public servants here to make folks’ projects go a lot smoother. We’re here to help people start their businesses and move into their dream homes…and I think that that message has kind of been lacking and so I really feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Maybe, just maybe, a year from now we’ll be writing a story about how quickly you can get a building permit in Dallas.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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