In our last blog post, we talked about how we were going to be presenting a case study to the City of Long Beach about the process of obtaining permits and dealing with various departments within the City. (Read the press release). As we previously indicated, our design and construction team happened to be working on a project that made the perfect test subject for such a case study, as it involved multiple departments within the City. Since that post, we have met with the City to convey our findings.
We were in the potentially unenviable position of having to tell City officials, who we regularly rely on to get our plans permitted, what we don’t like about their process. However, at our meeting with Amy Bodek, Director of Development Services, and Angela Reynolds, Deputy Director for the City of Long Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to be met, not with resistance, but with a spirit of, “Yes, that is exactly what we had in mind, too and, in fact, what we are already in the process of changing.”
While we were excited that the City has already begun looking for ways to help homeowners and business owners realize their dreams, we were tasked with finding the areas that could use improvement. Here is what we conveyed, as well as some of the things the City is already doing, or planning to do, to address our suggestions:
- Currently, plans for commercial projects must be submitted to nine different departments. We discussed the possibility of funneling plan submittals so there is one submittal that is then dispersed to the various departments.
- The speed at which plans are checked varies so greatly that even if one department finishes early, the project can be held up for weeks by the slowest department. The City officials we met with indicated that an online submittal process is currently in development, which will help streamline this process.
- When mom and pop-type business owners enter the City to find out what the requirements are for their project, they often come away more confused than when they entered. On several occasions, I have been at the City, waiting for my number to be called, and have overheard small business owners sounding distressed over what the building official just told them. If they happen to sit at the same table I’m waiting at, I will give them a few minutes of my time to translate what they were just told and provide them an outline of the steps they need to take. The City officials acknowledged that the process can be daunting, and shared that they are looking at creating a position and hiring an individual to walk homeowners and business owners through the process.
- Due to the way the Building Code and the Municipal Code are written, there are often conflicts between the two codes. For example, the Planning Department may decide that a certain number of people could occupy a building based upon how they interpreted the building use. The Building Department interpretation may set the maximum occupancy at a higher number and impose costly fire and plumbing requirements. Since these conflicts are open to interpretation by the building plan checkers, we asked that they use the most applicable interpretation, instead of the strictest. The City officials assured us that they have already begun working with City staff to provide them with avenues for considering interpretations of the code that take into account the actual conditions, instead of considering only the most strict interpretation.
- Currently there seems to be no solution if there is a disagreement between homeowners or business owners and the City over code interpretation. We suggested that the City and the owner should be able to partner up to find an interpretation that suits their specific use. This doesn’t mean that “anything goes,” but if, as happened in our case study project, there is a pool pump that isn’t on the approved pump list, and yet the owner would like to use it, don’t dismiss the request; instead, help the owner to provide the documentation that will help the staff to quickly and easily review the request.
- We asked the City to consider designing a screening process that gives priority to design teams that repeatedly demonstrate competence in the building and plan review process. The current plan check procedure actually penalizes design professionals who submit a complete set of plans. We work with a variety of designers who tell us their goal is to make their plans “seem” as simple as possible. That way the City will check the drawings over the counter (on the same day of the submittal). If the City thinks the project is complicated—if it has a lot of sheets or structural calculations, or is on large sheets (all signs of a complete set of drawings)—the City will “take the job in” and it won’t be checked for 4-6 weeks.
The response we received from the City, overall, was very positive and we felt the meeting was a great success! We were encouraged by all they are already doing to improve their internal processes and by their willingness to listen to our concerns and suggestions. I believe we were able to confirm some things they were already thinking, as well as offer a new perspective on some issues.
We are excited about the online submittal process they have already begun to develop, which they have asked M. Grisafe Architect to help beta test. We also see many positive steps being taken in the area of staff training, specifically on code interpretation issues. Finally, we think the idea of hiring someone to assist and empower home and business owners through the permit process is a great one!
We commend Amy and Angela from the City of Long Beach for their openness to suggestions and receiving candid feedback, and look forward to being a resource for them in the future as they implement changes and make improvements.