1947 Center St., where the Berkeley Planning Department and permit center are based. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley’s Department of Planning and Development is overhauling how it does public business in reaction to complaints about how quickly it responds to permit requests.

Since 2017, the department has tried simplifying, streamlining, and opening the process for residents, developers and contractors seeking to build in Berkeley. It has upgraded its technology, made the checklist for submissions more user-friendly, trained staff to be more customer oriented and developed strategic amendments to the zoning ordinance.

The department has even hosted open houses and “coffees with inspectors” events, for the public and contractors to ask questions and strengthen connections.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve set in motion the past year,” said Timothy Burroughs, who was appointed the director of the department in April after serving as interim director for almost a year.

The push to improve customer service came after the city hired San Diego consulting firm Zucker Systems in the fall of 2016 to help identify key areas in which the city could improve the permitting process. The group issued 152 recommendations in its final report, targeting areas like the amount of time it takes to issue a permit, lagging technology, enterprise funds that required more money, an overall strategy that wasn’t comprehensive enough, and policies and procedures that — on paper — weren’t consistent enough. One issue that stood out was the difficulty of having multiple boards review projects before they are approved.

“Berkeley’s processes are in many ways reflective of the values the city has chosen to prioritize, including transparency and public review during the application process, and achieving sustainability and community benefits goals at a project’s completion,” a memo sent by the city manager’s office about the report noted. “While lauding the demonstrated commitment to such values, Zucker also points out that such processes will by their nature tend to make project approval timelines lengthier than those in most other cities.”

The Zucker Systems report also lauded a number of strengths in the planning department, including staff’s education level, new office space and permit center, the electronic process by which the city receives permit plans, a “sophisticated” enterprise fund, a centralized permit service center, the ease with which people can make appointments, and how the city reviews plans in a way that allows simultaneous review by all the required departments.

The report prompted the planning department to create a two-year improvement plan focusing on 32 of the suggestions made by the consultant. That work plan was presented to the City Council in October.

Longstanding criticism about slow permitting 

For decades Berkeley residents have complained about the length of time it takes to get even simple jobs through the planning department and the complexity of navigating all the rules — which sometimes seem to change depending on which staff member is overseeing a project.

One woman who wanted to put an addition on her home initially had a good experience with the department. The Berkeley resident, who asked not to be named, spoke to “a very pleasant” man about a year ago. After receiving some advice, she hired an architect and went back to the city with renovation plans in April. Then there was silence.

“I got no response, in spite of my repeated attempts to reach him,” said the woman, who lives in a duplex with her two daughters (one with a child on the way) and her son-in-law. “I then got busy … and didn’t pick it up again until late summer, when I decided again to go to the planning department’s counter, where I met with (another employee).”

She said she was told to speak with her neighbors and get them onboard before officially submitting the plans, and to email them to the department, which she did in October. The city staffer told her it would take Berkeley about a week to two weeks to get back to her.

The planner still hadn’t responded by late December even though the woman has left “several” messages, she said.

“I am being stonewalled and I don’t know why,” she said. “Both city people were very nice and helpful in person, but then nothing when you follow up. I am at a loss as to what to do.”

Another resident, who asked for anonymity because she may do more work, said a seemingly routine kitchen remodel ended up taking two-and-a-half years to approve and cost her thousands in extra funds for lawyers and surveyors.

‘It took forever,” she said. “They were long past their deadline. The project was assigned to a fairly junior planner, who was totally overwhelmed. I called and called and sent emails and got nothing back.”

The planner eventually visited the home once, then vanished again, she said.

“Months later, I went (to the planning office) on a Friday when it was closed,” she said. “I went in, grabbed someone, and had a tantrum.”

The Zucker Systems report noted that promptly returning calls to customers was an issue the department needed to address.

“One of the key problems we heard from customers is the lack of return phone calls and emails on a timely basis,” the report said. “As part of the information age, we believe that all phone calls and emails should be returned the same day received. Staff will suggest that they don’t have time to do this. However, unless the phone calls and emails are never returned, it takes no more time, and likely less, to return them promptly. Phone calls and emails should not be viewed as an interruption of the work but as an integral part of the work. For many staff, time should be set aside at the end of the day for this function.”

The consultant said that a customer survey revealed: “a frequent complaint that staff at the counter do not seem to demonstrate any sense of urgency when dealing with them, even though many customers must wait for more than an hour before they are helped at the counter. Customers state that they frequently see front counter staff engaged in private conversations among themselves or on personal phone calls.”

Burroughs said the department has “room for improvement.”

“One of the challenges is that we have a high volume of permit applications,” he said. “We had over 7,500 applications (in 2017), probably double that with re-submissions.”

One of the major projects the planning department has handled in recent years in the development of 2211 Harold Way, which is 18 stories high. The building has been approved but not constructed and the department has also had to weigh in on whether to keep extending its permit. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

In recent years, Berkeley has approved more than 1,400 apartment units throughout the city as well as a number of complex projects including a high-rise hotel on Shattuck Avenue and Center Street and a 315-unit residential complex at 2211 Harold Way. Mill Creek Residential is in the process of seeking approval for an 18-story high rise on Shattuck Avenue and Allston Way and Grosvenor America is attempting to construct a 12-story residential building on Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way, among other projects.

In addition to overseeing building permits and reviewing proposed developments, the planning department oversees Berkeley’s rental housing inspection and safety programs, seismic safety programs, and environmental sustainability and toxics management programs. The department has about 77 full-time employees, according to Zucker Systems.

One issue is that applicants often don’t know exactly what to submit and how to do so when they initially apply. Which is why the city kicks back so many applications, the report noted.

As part of its overhaul, the department is trying to communicate better. But considering the city’s various zoning laws and standards that can be daunting.

“The process is very challenging,” said Burroughs. “The codes are very complex. It’s our job to make it as easy as possible.”

Staffing levels are also an issue. The department’s six permit technicians — who handle initial permit intake, review, routing, and permit issuance — each handle about 1,000 permit requests annually, said Burroughs. When the economy is hot, as it has been for several years, the number of permit applications goes up. Adjusting to the ups and downs of the economy is “kind of like having to improve the plane while you’re flying it,” said Burroughs.

“The staff are extremely dedicated, extremely hard-working, and extremely professional,” he said.

In FY 2019, the department will analyze its staffing “to ensure greatest areas of need are addressed,” according to the work plan Burroughs submitted to the city council in October. It has already expanded the use of outside consultants to do plan checks to make the process more prompt. As a result, the department “completed more than 90% of Zoning Certificates for business licenses in one day or less,” according to the report.

The current planning staff roster should be larger considering the number of projects that have been proposed, said Mark Rhoades, the city’s former planning chief who now runs his own development-consulting firm.

In a good economy, people are less patient, said Rhoades. Delays and slowness can often be attributed to the decision makers to whom staffers answer. Berkeley wants more consensus among neighbors and other involved parties than other cities, before moving forward with construction, he said. Which takes more time.

“You have boards and commission members who, without a lot of evidence, are willing to question staff analysis and science (more than in other jurisdictions),” Rhoades said. “Staff can be like ‘Oh my God – am I going to get castigated?’”

“Berkeley exercises some of the highest levels of discretion in the East Bay, possibly the entire Bay Area,” he said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to need more staff.”

But Burroughs said things are getting better, and the department is doing its job in answering to the public.

“People should care, and people should ask questions,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of work to improve the process.”

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...