Palo Alto eyes reforms to permitting process

City initiative aims to remove surprise, frustration from the 'Palo Alto Process'

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.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto process
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 5, 2010 at 8:54 am

This will only work if two things happen:

1) Individuals, who have no financial stake in the matter, should no longer be allowed to hijack the process and keep homeowners/businesses hostage. While there, of course, must be input from the public (though the issue of how much input the public should have is another issue) this should be limited to a certain time frame and there complaints/suggestions must be addressed quickly. we just saw how a small group of well-connected city "elite" held the owners of the home on Lincoln Avenue hostage for over 3 years, costing him over $500K while incurring no personal cost whatsoever.

2) The city council needs to stop kowtowing to small, vocal, "connected" people. While the public should be heard, the council must ensure that this does not lead to endless delays, while the council is afraid to "upset" certain citizens.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:49 am

I find the City Manager's vision for reforming the City of Palo Alto’s permitting process (known to local planning wonks as the "Palo Alto Process”) laughable. Doesn't Keene realize that the "Palo Alto Process" is the direct result of a well engaged and informed local citizenry? This ain't Modesto or Stockton or even Tucson for that matter; this is Palo Alto. The precise reason it takes longer to approve projects in general here is because the community is engaged and active during the review process. If the community didn’t care about what got built it would be much quicker for developers to get their approvals and permits.

Keene seems to identify inefficiencies in customer service at the Development Center as the main culprit. What he doesn't mention is the fact that staffing levels at the Development Center and more specifically the Building Division have been reduced significantly over the past few years (See this weeks other front page article on City employee "Brain Drain"). These positions have been eliminated, left unfilled or filled with temporary employees or full time consultants that just don't provide the level of service that the Palo Alto community demands.

So what's Keene's answer to this City facilitated deterioration in customer service? To hire a consultant and commit dozens of the remaining staff members to a drawn out process of "identifying" where changes are needed. It appears that Keene’s main idea is to try to squeeze more out of remaining employees who are already overworked due to years of taking on extra workloads. How about replacing some of the employees or positions that have been reduced? That’s the best way to improve customer service, not by asking fewer employees to do more.

PS: Developers are always going to complain about the length of time it takes to get approvals and permits. If they had it their way they wouldn't even need to go through any process they would just build whatever would make them the most money. You have to find a balance between developer interests and what the community desires; and in Palo Alto that balance is called the "Palo Alto Process."

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2010 at 10:47 am

Why pay the consultants? Why not just adopt the policies and structures already in place in a "development-friendly" place like Milpitas, Riverside, or Las Vegas? Then Palo Alto could look just like them in a decade or two.

Like this comment
Posted by Still Irritated
a resident of El Carmelo School
on Nov 5, 2010 at 11:25 am

Still cannot understand the lack of common standards for inspectors so that when the time comes for a "final" inspection, there are problems that go back to the permitting process and then are "missed" throughout the various intermediate inspections.

I hope the "no surprise" standard will eliminate this!

Like this comment
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 5, 2010 at 11:27 am

To PA Resident - your pessimism is laughable. Keene is working hard with the hand he was dealt. The loss of city employees is an opportunity to make the previously fat machine work more efficiently and that is exactly what Keene is trying to do. If you think this only impacts connected, rich, terrible developers, try a project yourself. You do not need to be any of those things to learn that the PA process is seriously flawed. People can have input without causing senseless, relatively very, very long delays, to satisfy a crazy neighbor or two.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so crazy neighbor
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Unfortunately, the City of Palo Alto Planning staff tends to treat all neighbors as though they are "crazy neighbors." Neighbors can't get straight answers or civil treatment at the Development Center. The process is already skewed to serve the developer as the "customer." The last "streamlining" of the process made it easier for developers to get variances and exceptions to the zoning standards. I'm all for efficiency, but Planning needs to do its job responsibly without cutting corners or skipping steps.

The 405 Lincoln Ave project was an exceptional situation where the City had been forced by litigation to start following the rules, and the 405 Lincoln Ave owners were unlucky in that they applied for demolition of the historically-designated home just after the City was forced to start following the rules. I don't think that this project is an appropriate example of the general problems at the Development Center.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto process
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm

"the 405 Lincoln Ave owners were unlucky in that they applied for demolition of the historically-designated home just after the City was forced to start following the rules'

Not really. 405 Lincoln is not a historic home

Web Link
"The board agreed with the applicants' environmental analysis, which showed that the one-story building at 405 Lincoln is not a historically significant structure." (the board being the Historical review Board)

this is a perfect example of "neighbors" hijacking the process for their own personal desires

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:35 pm

They have been talking about doing this since June Fleming was City Manager. Palo Alto can't even do this without turning it over to the Palo Alto "process".
And how much will the consultant be paid for this "now one of the cities highest priorities"??
I would like to see how much money Palo Alto has spent the last 10 years on outside consultants, I'm sure it's a number we will never see printed.

Like this comment
Posted by News Junkie
a resident of Southgate
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Not long ago, the city, including Mayor Pat Burt, denied the fact there even was a "Palo Alto Process".

Weren't developers even quoted as saying the "Process" was a myth?
Now it's not a myth? Now, everyone admits there IS a problem?

It's time to make up their minds. Credibility is being lost, daily.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto process
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 5, 2010 at 1:57 pm

New Junkie--from the link I provided above:

"Mayor Pat Burt said the city regrets that the process has taken this long.
Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa agreed and urged his colleagues to move the project along.
"It's embarrassing, absurd and I'm sure absolutely frustrating for the applicant," Espinosa said."

if you ask me the council are just trying to cover their behinds--they allow the "process" to be what it is by not taking a strong stand for quick resolutions. Naturally they are afraid of upsetting people so we have situations like the 405 Lincoln home.

look at it this way--Alma Plaza and Edgewood Plaza have been sitting derelict for years--in that time we have the new Safeway in Menlo PArk, the Whole Food in Los Altos, the shopping center with Best Buy, Bed, Bath and Beyond etc. on Charleston in Mountain View.

Like this comment
Posted by pecuniac
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm

The "Palo Alto Process" is a result of many OOPS which the City Council tries to fix by passing another ordnance or Planning addresses by writing another rule and/or procedure. Yes, its the organic result of an engaged citizenry but that doesn't excuse the tedious process and steps that a builder or homeowner has to go through to get a permit. The solar permitting process is an example. Despite all the politically expedient Green posturing by another City Council, two inspectors in the Building Dept still function as gatekeepers, larding up the permit application process with endless minutiae instead of addressing any Code issues in the field. As a result, many solar contractors avoid Palo Alto. If our inspectors are overworked, its because they have created a paper and procedural labyrinth that gives them job security. They are way ahead of the fire fighters.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2010 at 8:45 pm

One very easy first step would be to eliminate the ridiculous and costly protection of sacred trees, like oaks and redwoods. Then eliminate the costly requirements to fence off trees in the public strip. Then eliminate all of the high-paid arborists in our town. Somehow, Palo Alto became a "canopy" town without such crazy rules and tree czars.

Like this comment
Posted by who cares
a resident of Triple El
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:44 pm

If only you knew how right you are regarding the solar permitting process and the two inspectors who fill their time sending plan checks of projects back numerous times asking for more information. If you don't know how or why a fairly simple technology works, then just keep asking for additional info in hopes that the applicant will give up and go away. Part of the problem is because the former Planning Director Steve Emslie insisted on "dumbing down" the Building Division in hopes that the process would evolve into faster turn around time on plan checks if the plan checkers weren't knowledgable on Bldg/Elect/Plbg/Mech codes. Instead of rewarding intelligence, Emslie insisted on rewarding ignorance.

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

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 3 comments | 2,987 views

Juggling Renewables
By Sherry Listgarten | 42 comments | 2,145 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 956 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 712 views

Migraines and motherhood
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 460 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.