Horror stories abound of how even minor projects can become mired in the city's review process, frustrating homeowners, developers and their design professionals and driving up the cost and duration of construction.
The combination of an overworked city staff along with an archaic process for review and approval by city departments like fire, planning, public works and utilities result in a system that is inefficient and on the verge of collapse.
It didn't take City Manager Jim Keene long to recognize the importance of overhauling the permitting process to improve the functioning and credibility of Palo Alto city government, and he sought help from community members and design professionals to craft a fix.
With the added pressure of a rapidly growing demand for building permits and project approvals, the city council approved Keene's bold plan this week that will add five highly paid staff members to the Development Center at a time when other departments are cutting back.
The reforms passed easily 7-1, perhaps due to the booming business currently seen at the center, which could produce $8 million in revenue by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. If the city manager's plans work out, the five new staff members will lead the rejuvenated department to drastically change the "culture" of a department that has long been known as the home of "Palo Alto Process," a label that brings visions of red tape and gridlock to the residents, builders and developers who attempt to get approval for projects large and small.
It won't be easy to wipe out the mindset that Development Center staff members often are fixated on mind-numbing details rather than actually helping customers get something done. But at least on paper, city administrators have designed a system we hope will deploy a much more skilled team, which is one of the busiest at City Hall.
Former Councilman John Barton, a local architect who has years of experience in dealing with the center and served on an advisory group that helped the staff draw up the changes, emphasized the importance of achieving a culture change within City Hall.
"The plan is one thing — implementing it is another," he said, adding, "As you know, culture changes are difficult. If this is anything, it's a culture change."
The final vote to endorse the changes was 7-1, with Yiaway Yeh absent and Karen Holman dissenting. It was a solid victory for the city manager, who has spent more than a year putting the new guidelines together.
The beefed-up department will be led by a director who will report directly to the city manager and coordinate interactions with other city departments involved in the permitting process. Other new staff will oversee the day-to-day operations of the Development Center and improve customer service, from initial discussions with a resident, developer, architect or contractor to complex project review and management.
The proposal estimates that the new employees, plus an administrative staff member that already has been added to the department, would cost an additional $600,000 to $800,000 a year, pushing anticipated expenses for the year ending July 2012 up to $7.5 million. But the administration expects those costs to be covered by the department's growing revenue base, which is expected to hit $7.5 million to $8 million for the fiscal year.
There is plenty of reason for the city to take this action now, despite the economic downturn that is crippling the national economy. Council member Nancy Shepherd called gridlock at the Development Center "the most egregious in our community right now."
Staff data shows that this May, 1,263 customers were served, up 380 visits from last year, a 43 percent increase. During June, there was a 31 percent jump over last year, although July moved up only 2 percent over 2010.
Mayor Sid Espinosa got it right when he told the council: "Without a doubt, Palo Alto should be thorough, we should be transparent, we should be rules-based, but we should also be more customer service-based and more efficient."
We wholeheartedly agree, and hope the city can achieve that outcome with this overhaul of the Development Center.