Palo Alto seeks to tame permitting process

City Manager James Keene launches new initiatives to improve service at Development Center

Palo Alto officials have launched a new initiative to revamp the city's convoluted and much maligned building and permitting process, City Manager James Keene announced Wednesday afternoon.

Keene said the initiative, entitled Blueprint for a New Development Center, aims to significantly improve service at the Development Center for applicants passing through the city's building and permitting process. He said the city is preparing to survey stakeholders to solicit feedback and suggestions about possible improvements.

The effort aims to tame a development process that has long been a source of local anger and ridicule. Developers, business owners and residents seeking to expand or modify their houses have complained for decades about the convoluted nature of what's become derisively known as the "Palo Alto Process."

The new initiative would focus on one major area of the "Palo Alto Process" -- the customer's experience at the Development Center.

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Keene listed a series of recent complaints the city has received from project applicants. One involved a restaurant owner who claimed that different inspectors asked him to meet different requirements; another business owner complained about waiting for more than two hours at the Development Center. One resident had his electricity switched off by the Utilities Department because he was making minor changes to his house, even though he was living in the house at the time of the construction.

Other customers complained about extensive requirements, long processes and slow turnaround time, which was most likely caused by a lack of coordination between the building and planning divisions, Keene said.

As part of the new initiative, the city plans to survey frequent users of the Development Center and create staff teams that would focus on boosting customer service at the front counter of the Development Center. Keene said the city also wants to look at streamlining the review process, restructuring hours of operations at the Development Center and making better use of technology.

The customer experience at the Development Center needs to be much better, Keene said.

"The background noise in the community about the development process is something we hear about all the time," Keene said. "We know we can improve the process."

Many of the changes will be instituted before the end of this year, Keene said, while others will be implemented by July 2011. Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, said city officials want to hear feedback from residents and Development Center users before they decide on specific changes. The city has already implemented some changes, including online permit applications and a permit "kiosk" at the Development Center that allows customers to access records.

Keene said the city plans to make the process completely transparent. The initiative will include metrics for measuring improvements in service level and periodic updates to the City Council.

Larry Perlin, Palo Alto's chief building official, said staff has recently visited seven different cities that are comparable to Palo Alto to see how they operate their Development Centers and learn about their permitting processes. Some of the cities had appointment-based systems in place, he said. Others had longer hours of operations or turned over counter service to senior planners with decision-making powers.

Palo Alto officials plans to consider these day-to-day protocols, as well as more substantial investments such as video-conferencing technology and an ombudsman position that can cut through the multi-departmental bureaucracy and follow up with customer requests.

"For a lot of this, we don't need to reinvent the wheel if we can just put in the best practices," Perlin said.

Keene called the new drive toward improving the Development Center one of the key initiatives he has personally chosen to undertake this year. He said he has undertaken similar restructuring efforts at other cities and that he knows it's possible to bring in major changes.

"Everything is going to be on the table," Keene said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 28, 2010 at 5:07 pm

"Other customers complained about extensive requirements, long processes and slow turnaround time, which was most likely caused by a lack of coordination between the building and planning divisions, Keene said."

Coordination between divisions? That's unnatural. Keene's efforts are doomed. No real bureaucrat will yield authority to another department.

As an example, consider the chaos between Public Works and Utilities. One repaves a road, the other digs it up the next week.

Like this comment
Posted by ailina
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I hope they bring back incentives to restore old houses so we don't lose our historic houses as quickly!

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 28, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Give reviewers just one shot at non-safety and health items.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 28, 2010 at 7:57 pm

Good luck with that. It's the Palo Alto Process, not the Development Center that is messed up. How can you streamline a process when we have things like the Individual Review that gives neighbors VETO power over your project? Just ask Elizabeth and Jaime Wong about that.

Web Link

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Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 28, 2010 at 9:24 pm

"How can you streamline a process when we have things like the Individual Review that gives neighbors VETO power over your project?"

It's very easy to streamline that process. The city gives the neighbors five days to respond, and their verdict is final. No long, drawn-out appeals to the city council.

Like this comment
Posted by fireman
a resident of another community
on Jul 28, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Isn't this the same old problem Frank Benest solved????

Like this comment
Posted by Let's go backwards
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 28, 2010 at 11:02 pm

In 1990 I had the whole front of my house pushed forward, a raised roof to accommodate a pitched ceiling. One trip to the Planning Department, my building permit was issued.

Fast forward 20 years, I need to rebuild my lanai, the contractor walks me through the permit process and says the permit alone will cost $3,000. The Palo Alto process is alive and well!! God help us, let's go back to the way it was in 1990!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 28, 2010 at 11:09 pm

I really did feel like these guys were making it up as they went along when I got a permit last year. The whole process almost felt like a game of whack-a-mole in which I'd respond to their myriad points only to have them raise several more points after the fact. Unreal.

Like this comment
Posted by who cares
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Jul 29, 2010 at 8:53 am

Maybe the problem is that you have an absentee Building Official who had no previous building department experience prior to being hired by palo alto or maybe it's the outsourcing of inspectors, plan checkers, counter technicians to companies who have no motivation to improve the system. The council and city manager didn't have any problem in eliminating multiple positions at the Development Center for the past two years, and now their going to fix it with a $50,000 outside consultant? Palo Altans demanded ousourcing of their city services and now they have it and now wonder why city services have deteriorated. Maybe the problem is multiple layers of managers with no one wanting to make a decision (the Bldg Dept. alone has three managers for 9 FTE's). You can hold as many press conferences as you want and bang your hands on the table saying you'll get to the bottom of the problem, but if the city manager or council members never even take the time to actually talk to the employees working there (and not through a $50,000 consultant or blue ribbon committee), nothing will ever change. Regarding fees, the Council and City Manager raise permit fees 10% to 15% annually and treat the fees like a cigarette tax, only a few will use the service so just keep adding fees(taxes) and only a few will complain. Palo Alto has a much larger problem than only the Development Center, the city lacks leadership. If you keep pushing decisions off to outside consultants and blue ribbon committees and have leadership that won't or can't make an educated decision on their own, then you will end up with the system we now have in place. Good luck!

Like this comment
Posted by nomoreremodeling
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 29, 2010 at 9:00 am

I agree with Let's Go Backwards. Also in 1992 I had extensive remodeling done, and it was OK. Last year, I added on again and it was awful. Getting the permit and meeting all the new regulations was very complicated. And the inspectors seemed to nitpick unimportant things. I don't mind inspectors doing the right thing and making contractors build in a safe manner. That's a protection to the home owner. But it's gotten unnecessarily mired in too many reg's now.

Like this comment
Posted by Confused
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2010 at 11:29 am

But it doesn't seem that long ago the City and a few developers said no "Palo Alto Process" existed.

In fact, developers said how wonderful it was to work with the staff in Palo Alto, each gaving examples of how much they were able to get done.

If memory serves, the phrase "Urban Myth" was used to describe Palo Alto's unjustified bad reputation. Didn't Mayor Pat Burt even agree with that? I'm sure all of them, including Mayor Burt, said it was a 'myth'.

It looks like they aren't sticking to that story anymore. Now there IS a "PA Process"?

I'm confused. Surely it isn't only I that remembers the City, and a few major developers, claimed this notoriously difficult process was only a myth.

Like this comment
Posted by homeowner
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2010 at 11:30 am

Here's one thing I'd like to see changed:

Palo Alto doesn't issue occupancy permits when the construction is at a certain stage but not complete. For better or worse (and it can be worse when contractors drag things out), other communities usually issue occupancy permits so that homeowners can move in before they close out their permits.

We had the problem that we were unable to refinance our construction loan into a home loan until we closed out the Palo Alto permits with final inspections signed off. This included getting things like the exterior painting finished, or finishing a non-essential bathroom. It also meant we had delays just because of scheduling for the various sign offs for completed work, where we could have afforded those delays if we'd had an occupancy permit, because you can usually refinance into a home loan with just the occupancy permit.

I should add that we felt Palo Alto inspectors were fairly responsive when it came to scheduling and coming out for inspections, and that this problem was not their fault. The change in policy would have helped us a lot, though.

Construction loans are much more expensive than home loans, and at that time, interest rates were rising. We were frantically trying to get important work and sign offs on things like electrical and plumbing. If we could have gotten an occupancy permit as soon as the house was habitable, we could have refinanced into a home loan then, while continuing to finish things like exterior paint and the spare bathroom, or even just working around scheduling issues for inspections on completed work.

I believe the bad experiences, but I think we have to carefully weigh them against the construction industry's self-interests. Like nomoreremodeling, I think we need inspectors to do the right thing and be firm and careful about problems. I'd like to see the building department fix some of the problems above, though we didn't experience them personally, in our experience they were actually better than a few other cities we've built in.

However, the building department is maddeningly unhelpful when it comes to providing information. We had to forego some "green" work because we were under the above time constraints and we just couldn't get any information from the building department. We got the impression we would be breaking new ground, so to speak, and might end up caught up in some poorly defined, unending process.

By contrast, I had to get information for an elderly friend in Mountain View who needed significant repairs, about what was possible and what she needed to comply with the building department there, and I found their department incredibly responsive and informative (even though I didn't live there) -- I completely understood in short order what the code was, what my friend needed to do, etc. No one at Palo Alto would do anything like that. (I think it also had to do with a much clearer written building code, and effective help in finding answers to my questions in the code, but I no longer remember the details.)

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm

The typical solution to getting permits is MONEY. Municipalities want it and don't care how they get it. This is very obvious in the Palo Alto city limits....

The Palo Alto Process is greased by money, when you spend it on the little pieces of paper that do NOTHING, you get your project done.

We did a special garage for housing race cars and their equipment in Mountain View. We actually did most of the construction work ourselves and did the plumbing and wiring as well ( I know much more than red to red, black to black and white to white than most UNION electricians know ). This work was done in the house we occupied while work was done. When it was time to sign off on the permit, the inspector commented on how well ALL the work was done. No outside contractors were wanted or needed...

So how many hurdles does the homeowner face when doing ANY improvement in your city? how much $$$ are spent for NOTHING but a piece of paper? How many extra burdens does the Palo Alto Process add to their TAXPAYERS?

That is where the city needs to start. I'll make odds that improvements will never come. Too much CONTROL would be lost and you know how unwilling chair warmers are when losing Money and Control...

Like this comment
Posted by shady contractors
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 29, 2010 at 12:27 pm

A lot of contractors around here know about the "Palo Alto process" and will often offer to do remodeling under the radar to avoid paying the hefty permit fees if they know they can get away with it. The know all the tricks like hiding debris in the garage or avoiding construction during early hours/late evenings/weekends. As long as your house isn't on a busy street and none of your neighbors complain/ask you can get away with it.

A neighbor near us decided to remodel their roof. The permit for it would've cost $3000 but their contractor never filed for one. Everyone on the block looked the other way because the new roof was going to look so much better than the old one.

Like this comment
Posted by Healthcare professional
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

This proposed survey and overhaul is long overdue. As a healthcare professional serving the Palo Alto community, I built my clinic/office 3 years ago and had the unfortunate mispleasure of dealing with the Palo Alto Process for 2 years from permit approval to final inspection. When I build my second office you can be assured it will not be in Palo Alto. Please make the process easier for both residential and commercial development as it will ultimately benefit the community and its members.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 29, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

If you think it is bad now, Wait until the new energy rule goes into effect. That is the rule that says that when a house is sold the seller must bring it up to current energy code requirements.
This means:
1. A professional survey of existing energy features of the house.
2. Preparation of plans and specifications for required corrections.
3. Preparation of an energy compliance report that demonstrates the
corrections will comply with current energy requirements.
4. Submission for permit.
5. Construction and sign-off.
Just a guess, I estimate this will take 10% of the sale price and extend escrow 3 to 4 months.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Big
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 30, 2010 at 2:51 am

The most important changes to the "Palo Alto Process" are time and money.

The must be a finite amount of time for a permit review, you can't keep new businesses closed for half a year. And, all the requirements need to be submitted to the applicant at the same time, no coming back every month with new requirements. If the city takes too long or misses something, too bad as long as it is not a safety issue.

The city needs to stop using the permit process as revenue generating scheme, everyone already pays enough taxes. It should be revenue neutral to encourage new businesses and remodels.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2010 at 8:12 am

Wasn't this issue addressed a few years back?

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Posted by Leigh M.
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 30, 2010 at 12:23 pm

We built a house in 2002. We are in the planning process again, right now. 8 year has not seen any improvement.

It comes down to legislating consideration for neighbors, the architectural landscape, history and neighborhood context. Despite an excruciating process, there are still ugly houses. Those who consider their neighbors and the context of the neighborhood, are tarred and feathered along with the objectionalable houses. The baby has been thrown out with the bath water.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Long ago, I had a solution for the ugly house problem - blinders to block out sights offensive to finer sensibilities.

Like this comment
Posted by andreas
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 31, 2010 at 2:35 pm

A few months ago, I looked into adding a large sun room to my house.

The building contractor said it would take 3-4 days to build it, but 4-5 weeks to get the permit!

I asked if this was normal. He laughed and said in Fremont, you apply in the morning, go for lunch, come back, and it's ready. 2-3 hours at the most. But in Palo Alto, it's 4-5 weeks and delays and multiple revisions.

These sun rooms are built from kits; just assemble them.

Frankly, the "Palo Alto Process" is the building department's employment security plan: by dragging it out, they get paid their salary.

Fire half of the team and tell the others to start working faster.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Process
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 1, 2010 at 11:37 am

The Palo Alto Process Definition:

Too much city staff trying to justify its existence.

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Can you please give the name of the kit you used and let me know how you like it? Were you the first one to get approval, or have many people built these (I'm wondering if it would be easier if I put one up now because you blazed a trail....)

Like this comment
Posted by another curious
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 2, 2010 at 11:27 pm


Another interested.

Please post the kit name and manufacturer. Thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Process
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 3, 2010 at 8:00 am

We got through the PA process just recently. What a nightmare. I felt that the person we were assigned by the planning department to review our project was trying to design our remodel. We were not doing anything outrageous and we were well within the guidelines for height and light plain. It was frustrating and took a very long time. At one point they wanted to put some huge tall porch over our front door that made it look like a McMansion. All we wanted was a master bedroom and bath upstairs. We originally had some gables both for the new and existing roof. This is in line with what I see on streets around us that have just been built. But I guess it depends on the planning department person you get. We had to remove the gables then they tried to add that stupid porch in front. We had to put our foot down. We lost the gables argument. This process is crazy.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 3, 2010 at 8:45 am

The planning department has too many amateur architects who resent people in Palo Alto because they think everyone here has money. We don't. I've remodeled and built houses in many parts of the area - PA is by far the worst place to deal with.

Like this comment
Posted by jek0918
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 3, 2010 at 11:11 am

I live in Old Palo Alto and what I would like to see is some kind of "scheduling" of permits so that not everyone is building all at once. There are three houses being redone on one block, all across from one another, and multiple rebuilds occuring on almost every block. It has become difficult driving through these areas trying to avoid workers on the street, large trucks, etc. And the streets continue to keep getting worse from these large trucks.

Like this comment
Posted by curious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Be grateful they're doing it all at once and it won't be dragged out. We always get flat tires when a neighbor does framing. We're always glad when that stage is over.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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