Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 24, 2012

At Development Center, Palo Alto quietly untangles its bureaucracy

City gradually adds staff, space to its downtown blueprint hub

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's bustling permit center has for decades enjoyed a level of popularity somewhere between a dentist's chair and a Department of Motor Vehicles branch.

But on a recent Wednesday morning, the Development Center across the street from City Hall bore little resemblance to the bureaucratic nightmare people associate with the so-called "Palo Alto Process." The atmosphere was serene, the waiting line nonexistent and the lone customer nodded in understanding as a city planner explained the next steps that must be taken for a building project.

Planning officials recognize that the city still has a long way to go in its multi-year quest to reform the local permit-granting operation, which is supposed to shepherd residents and developers through home remodels and construction of new buildings. But the effort has already borne some fruit. The Development Center at 285 Hamilton Ave. has undergone a quiet but dramatic transformation in the two years since City Manager James Keene unveiled the "Blueprint for a New Development Center" — an initiative aimed at bringing some sanity, clarity and efficiency to the city's notoriously thorough process. The effort includes, among other things, adding staff, improving coordination between departments and hiring one high-level official to conduct the bureaucratic orchestra.

In one of its most dramatic recent moves, the city has expanded its physical presence by leasing space on the second floor at 285 Hamilton Ave., just above the Development Center. Planning Director Curtis Williams said the goal is to bring in officials currently based at other buildings, including City Hall and the Utilities Department building at Elwell Court, so that they can be on hand if their assistance is needed with an application. The city hopes to complete the relocations by the end of the year, he said.

The physical configuration of the Development Center is also set to see a major change. Sometime this fall, the city plans to introduce a new setup in which the different departments involved in the permitting operation — including Planning, Utilities, Public Works and Fire — literally share one table, circumventing the need for a customer to shuttle through a bureaucratic maze. It's a page from the playbook long employed by hospitals looking to tackle a mysterious disease and by disaster responders huddling at an Emergency Operations Center during an unexpected calamity. Here, however, the goal is to speed up residents' remodeling efforts and help building applications move along.

The effort took a huge leap forward last fall, when the City Council took a brief break from the period of citywide austerity and approved a host of new positions for the Development Center: three project managers, a day-to-day manager for the center and a high-level "development services official" who would coordinate the various departments involved (the decision was made easier by the fact that these positions are funded by permitting fees and not through the General Fund). The city currently has an interim day-to-day manager in place and is in the midst of recruiting the top development official, Williams said. It plans to interview the finalists for the top position in the next few months and to fill it by the end of the year, he said.

The effort still has a long way to go before the city realizes its ultimate goal — a system in which any resident can come in and, with a single conversation with a single official, get the information, direction or approvals he or she needs. But planners are hopeful that by the end of the year — with the new development director in place, the second story filled with backup staff and the Development Center reconfigured for better coordination between departments — the bulk of the bureaucratic heavy lifting will already be completed.

"I think there has already been improved coordination of permits, which helps move things faster," Williams said. "We've been trying to get this single-contact person forever. We've been able to do it well for medium-to-large projects but we're still working to make it happen on every project, however small."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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