Palo Alto's famously infuriating permit-review process is about to get a major makeover.
Spurred by years of customer complaints of having to wait hours to get help and by a recent surge of activity at the city's Development Center, the City Council decided Tuesday to add five new staff members, including a new director, to the chronically busy permit hub.
The council voted 7-1, with Yiaway Yeh absent and Karen Holman dissenting, to back a long list of reforms proposed by City Manager James Keene and the city's planning staff to improve customer service and reduce waiting times at the center, located across the street from City Hall. The reforms include hiring a "development center official" to coordinate the various departments involved in the permit process (a list that includes Planning, Fire, Utilities and Public Works), a "permit center manager" to provide day-to-day management of the facility and three project managers.
In approving the proposed initiatives, the council sought to address one of the most common sources of community consternation -- a permit process residents, developers and builders have called unnecessarily confusing and torturously time-consuming.
Councilman Greg Scharff said the process (derisively known around town as the "Palo Alto Process") is "probably the No. 1 issue people complained about" when he ran for the City Council last year. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd called the problem "the most egregious in our community right now."
The frustration only increased over the past year and a half, as the number of construction projects and permit inquiries increased. According to staff data, the Development Center saw 1,263 customers walk-ins in May of this year, 380 more than in May 2010 (a 43 percent increase). The June numbers spiked by 31 percent from a year ago, while July saw a 2 percent bump from a year ago.
Over the past seven months, the number of walk-ins per month increased by an average of 15 percent when compared to a year ago, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie said in a report.
"The Development Center has experienced considerably increased customer traffic in the last 18 to 24 months," Emslie told the council Tuesday. "Real estate activity and construction activity requiring building permits have increased dramatically."
More activity means longer waits for permit seekers. Emslie and Planning and Community Environment Director Curtis Williams said it's not uncommon for visitors to the Development Center to wait between one and three hours to get help. Local architect Judith Wasserman, who sits on the city's Architectural Review Board, cited one person she knows who had to wait four hours to pick up a permit that was allegedly ready. Another person, she said, visited the Development Center before lunch and had to stay there until closing time to get the desired assistance.
"The Palo Alto Process has become a synonym for overweening bureaucracy, micromanagement and frustrating inconsistencies," Wasserman said. "I think it's time for a change."
Former Councilman John Barton, an architect who served on an advisory group that helped staff come up with reforms, urged the council to approve the proposed changes and to pursue a broader "culture change" in the Development Center. Barton and Emslie said hiring a high-level manager to oversee the entire process is particularly critical. Barton compared the city's existing Development Center to "a pyramid with the top cut off." The poor collaboration between departments means applicants are occasionally hit with different requirements from different parts of City Hall. In some cases, they are forced to spend many months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the required permits.
Barton also warned that meaningful change would take time and considerable effort from the city.
"The plan is one thing -- implementing it is another," Barton said. "As you know, culture changes are difficult. If this is anything, it's a culture change."
Holman was the only council member to oppose the staff proposals, arguing that they don't go far enough in ensuring transparency. The reforms, she said, are geared primarily toward helping applicants achieve their goals more efficiently. They don't, however, take into account the concerns of the greater community, which may differ from those of the applicant, she said.
The rest of the council, however, enthusiastically endorsed the staff proposal.
"Without a doubt, Palo Alto should be thorough, we should be transparent, we should be rules-based," Mayor Sid Espinosa said. "But we should also be more customer-service based and more efficient."
The funds for the new positions will come from Development Center revenues, which have been spiking thanks to the higher activity. In fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, the city collected $7.1 million in Development Center revenues while spending $5.8 million. Staff expects the center, which is supposed to be revenue neutral, to bring in between $7 million and $8 million in revenues in the current fiscal year.
Barton said the staffing additions, by speeding up the permitting process, would help offset the rising expenditures. More people would want to come to Palo Alto, contributing more permit fees to the city.
"The potential for cost recovery is very, very, very high," Barton said.