Palo Alto's ambitious plan to strike the derisive phrase "Palo Alto Process" from the local lexicon is surging ahead this month, as the city prepares to launch a series of reforms aimed at making it easier for builders to obtain city permits.
City Manager James Keene and the city's leading planning officials told a group of business owners and downtown professionals Wednesday morning that reforming the city's permitting process is now one of the city's highest priorities. The goal is to radically improve customer service in the city's Development Center and to give applicants wanting to renovate, remodel or construct buildings a one-stop shop for all of their needs.
The bold initiative was prompted by years of complaints from developers and homeowners about the unruly nature of the process. Some of the members in the audience Wednesday complained that different city inspectors have different criteria, which makes code compliance difficult, if not impossible. Others complained it takes too long to get through the city's approval process. A few pointed to the recent example in the historic Professorville district, where it took the homeowner about three years and $500,000 to attain the city's permission to tear down a single-story house on Lincoln Avenue and build a new home.
To tame the bureaucratic beast, the city is reforming its entire organizational structure, instituting a series of benchmarks to measure customer service at the Development Center and encouraging local builders, developers and homeowners to point out problems and help the city resolve them.
Keene announced his ambitious campaign to reform the planning process in late July, when he held a press conference to talk about what he called the "Blueprint for a New Development Center." Since then, the city has hired consultants to lead the restructuring effort; created a new "staff action team" composed of representatives from all city departments involved in permitting; and appointed a new "Development Customer Advisory Group" consisting of architects, developers, builders and residential activists.
Keene said one of the biggest challenges in reforming the permitting process is the sheer number of departments involved. The staff action team includes representatives from the Public Works, Utilities, Fire, and Administrative Services departments, as well as the city manager's office.
"One of the biggest issues that we have to deal with is breaking down the silo-style structure and barriers between departments," Keene said Wednesday at the meeting, sponsored by the Palo Alto Business Improvement District.
The team held its first meeting Tuesday night, said Tommy Fehrenbach, the city's economic-development manager. The goal, he said, is to remove the element of surprise out of the notoriously convoluted system.
"Customer service is our key objective," Fehrenbach said. "We want the customers coming through the Development Center to have the best possible experience with the process and the system."
The city is also encouraging critics of the "Palo Alto Process" to step forward and help resolve the systemic problems.
The 20-member Advisory Group is charged with pointing out the flaws in the city's system and working with the city to fix these problems. Its members include local architects John Barton, Jim McFall, Joseph Bellomo and Tony Carrasco; Stanford General Manager John Benevenuto; Facebook Director of Real Estate Jim Merryman; College Terrace resident Doria Summa; and construction manager Chris Sigler, among others.
The group is scheduled to hold its first meeting later this month.
Palo Alto also plans to kick off a series of pilot projects in February in which applicants are teamed up with a staff member whose job would be to shepherd the application through the municipal maze of permit approvals.
"Instead of having a customer going to the Development Center and then perhaps going to different locations for different pieces of the application, we'll have the customer sitting in one chair and having all the resources and staff coming to them," said George Arimes, of the firm Horizon Centre, Inc., the city's system-design consultant.
Keene said the new initiative aims to make the permitting process less suspenseful.
"We want to have predictability, where someone comes in and knows what the expectations will be and knows the rules of the game and is able to chart it out and plan and not have a lot of surprises," Keene said.