Palo Alto officials plan to unveil new pilot projects at the Development Center next month as part of a broad effort to improve customer service and simplify the city's notoriously laborious development process.
The City Council discussed the ambitious effort, known as "Blueprint for a Development Center," at its meeting Monday night. While the city plans to start adding personnel and making other permanent changes in July, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the council that one new Development Center service will begin as soon as next month.
The pilot project would pair applicants with project managers who would shepherd the proposed building or renovation plan through the city's permitting process. Project-management services would give customers a central point of contact, Emslie said, avoiding the "runaround" -- one of the Development Center's often-cited customer-service problems.
Project managers would address concerns at various levels from simple requests for a permit or information to more complex requests for approval of commercial and residential plans.
The city has already tried this approach with several major applicants, including a proposal to expand the Hewlett-Packard Co. headquarters, and received positive feedback.
"I've gone through the process before and after and having a project manager has streamlined the process," said Elinor Kumpf, the architect behind the HP project. "The permit process will run smoothly, and I hope all projects will get this kind of attention."
The city also plans to install a central manager at the Development Center. Currently, different departments at the center report to different heads.
"Rather than force customers to learn our organizational structure, we want to provide a central management where the customer is not required to have to navigate our structure," Emslie said.
The council warmly welcomed staff proposals for the Development Center. Council members Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd both said the city's notoriously complex permitting process was a citizen complaint that they heard most often while running for council last year. Mayor Sid Espinosa agreed.
"I'm excited to see where it's going," Espinosa said. "It is assuredly the No. 1 thing I hear complained of it town -- even more so than sidewalks and roads."
Staff is also proposing to set up a Special Revenue Fund for revenues associated with the permitting process. The new fund would allow the Development Center to carry over its balances from one year to the next, independent of the General Fund, and create a reserve for the permitting service.
City officials also plan to change their funding approach and set fees that would cover the "actual cost of providing services," according to a report from Emslie.
"The plan sounds great," Councilmember Greg Schmid said at the conclusion of the presentation. "We want to encourage people to upkeep their homes and make it as efficient as possible."