Building permit delays slow Austin grocery store construction 

Back in April, during a community roundtable under the auspices of Invest South/West, Liz Abunaw did not hold back. Abunaw has been working for three years to build a bricks and mortar version of a 40 Acres Fresh Market grocery store at 5713 W. Chicago Ave. Finding funding has not been the problem. Getting building permits from the city of Chicago is what has slowed progress and driven up costs, she says.

As the discussion turned to the Chicago Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) program, she complained that her project received the funding but that delays in building permits keep adding to the costs. And she pointed to the fact that her team isn’t the only one of the fund’s beneficiaries that have run into those issues. 

“We’ve been waiting for our construction permit for close to 9 months,” Abunaw said in April. “There are NOF projects from the Emanuel administration that are just now about to finish up and open, and you’re damaging a lot of people falling through the cracks and not able to cross the finish line, because the development process is so long.  How is the city trying to respond to that?”

Department of Planning and Development officials at the meeting acknowledged that this was a problem, blaming it partially on the sheer number of applications the Department of Buildings, which handles the permits, must process. 

When Austin Weekly News recently reached out to Abunaw to see if there has been any progress since then, she said that there hasn’t been headway and referred this reporter to a June 28 blog post on the project website. In it, she still complained about the permit delay but she acknowledged some of the delays were on her team’s end, since nobody there works for her exclusively and any response to city requests takes time. She reiterated the earlier comments that her experience is a symptoms of a bigger issue a lot of West Side developers face and wrote that anyone who wants to open a business on the West Side should know what they’re in for.

Abunaw has been trying to get a grocery store off the ground since 2018. 40 Acres currently accepts online orders and, during the summer months, sells its products at the Austin City Hall Market. But the goal has always been to open a permanent, full-service grocery store.

In the blog post, Abunaw wrote that, when she bought the former Salvation Army building on Oct. 22, 2020, she was “impossibly naïve” about all the hurdles she would still need to overcome to turn the building into a grocery store. It took another three months to select the project architect, Latent Design, and it took another eight months to develop a design. Finding a general contractor was a nearly three-month-long process as well. 

From November 2021 to August 2022, the project team pursued what Abunaw described as “time-consuming rabbit holes” — most notably, the ultimately failed effort to widen the nearby stretch of Chicago Avenue to give more room for trucks to turn. 

While the design team had construction experience, they were designing a grocery store from scratch while “working around the limitations of a craptacular structure.”

“That took some trial and error,” Abunaw wrote. “When it comes to rehab projects ideas can take weeks to flesh out just to determine feasibility. First it has to be designed. Then it has to pass through structural engineering, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical assessments before it gets back to me just so I can say ‘hated it.’ Every bright idea that is ultimately rejected is four to six weeks of work down the drain.”

Now that the design has been developed, she said the city not issuing construction permits is currently a “bottleneck” holding up the project – but even there, she wrote that it wasn’t entirely the city’s fault. 40 Acres isn’t Latent Design’s only client, so when the city requests changes or asks for clarification, they can’t always respond right away. 

“That means no matter how much we’re spending for their services, they are not at our beck and call,” Abunaw wrote. “When the city asks for changes that we cannot evade, the people responsible for that discipline need time to get the work done. Sometimes that work takes a few days. Others it could be more than a week. There are times when we have to work around a key team member’s time off.”

She wrote that Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes the store site, did everything he could to help the process along. 

Austin African American Business Networking Association has been present monthly at virtual community stakeholders meetings, usually on the third Friday of the month, to give updates on major projects happening in the community. 

In response to Abunaw’s comments, city officials said that, while the department previously offered technical assistance to help grant recipients through the application process as an option, “we’re going to help them realize that it’s not really an option.” Abunaw responded that they need to take this more seriously.

“When the process takes this long, the budget increases,” she said. “Time is money.”

Abunaw closed her blog post by writing that she wrote it to be transparent with residents who are leery of the store that never seems to open, as well as to help other West Side entrepreneurs understand what they’ll have to face.

“I do not mind sharing my journey so that it may prepare others,” Abunaw wrote. “To paraphrase Jay-Z, ‘Liz did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.’”

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