Greenberger, Nutter announce new online ‘development process’

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

With $250,000 of funding in 2008 from the William Penn Foundation, the city has embarked on a “project of improving the development permitting process,” Nutter administration officials said over the weekend.

The results of the study and pending actions were summarized Monday afternoon by Mayor Michael Nutter and Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger, who has been acting deputy mayor and acting commerce director since June.

“This is only the first part of a series of improvements,” Nutter said. “The city is committed to getting the entire approval process online.”

That includes a new tool called a “permit wizard” which would allow “customers” to access the development process online – a process which has traditionally been “unpredictable, and both time- and labor-intensive.”

The city partnered with Trevose-based Clinton Rubin Management Consulting for the study, which yielded five goals, aiming to:
•    Yield a quicker and more efficient permitting process
•    Make permitting results predictable
•    Improve customer satisfaction
•    Attract outside developers and investors
•    Increase investment and development in Philadelphia

Nutter said the city has already begun implementing the report’s recommendations, which include decreasing processing time, increasing inter-departmental cooperation, and improving customer service.

Already, Nutter continued, the Department of Licenses & Inspections has reduced permit review times by 25 percent, to 20 days. Similar or bigger reductions in turnaround times have been made at the Water and Streets departments. “Our goal is to have as few people in the [Municipal Services Building] concourse as possible,” Nutter said.

In its internal newsletter from fall 2009, L&I reported that more than 200,000 zoning files were imaged and made available online, that service request response times “improved between 30 percent and 50 percent, depending on the operating unit,” and that overtime hours were reduced by more than 50 percent.

Ultimately, all permitting will done with forms accessed, filled out, filed and paid online. Applicants would then be able to track progress from anywhere at anytime.

Greenberger said the emphasis on an overhaul of the permitting and licensing process was something he could identify with, after more than three decades in the private sector working as an architect in the city.

“It was always that sense of arrival at the counter” and not really knowing what to expect, he recounted. That’s what the new report, what he called a “spectacular compendium of everything you have to do,” was meant to address.

Greenberger mentioned that many of the improvements came about from a 2004 list of recommendations to the city by the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia. Developer Sam Sherman, the immediate past president of the BIA who was present for the press conference, was cited as an important contributor to the effort. When questioned, Greenberger did not say if the city worked directly with any other developers on the new process, or systems.

One of 10 recommendations from that BIA report was to “create a user-friendly gateway
to large-scale development, a ‘Construction Permit Center,’ where representatives from all approving agencies are available at one location to review documentation, resolve conflicts and issue permits.”

“It’s really an economic development issue as much as anything else,” Sherman said Monday, after the event. “In order for the city to dig itself out of its financial hole, we need to re-populate the city. By re-populating the city, we expand the tax base.

“Clearly, zoning reform, and what was announced here today, are directly related to economic development. Demographics and the overall economic situation of the country right now is driving development to the urban centers. So Philadelphia really needs to position itself to take advantage of the economy, as it comes back.”

Greenberger said the predictability and transparency of the new system goes hand-in-hand with the goals of the Zoning Code Commission. Indeed, members of the city’s many civic associations and neighborhood groups, which met on Saturday for a six-hour workshop on how to better interact with developers (in the context of the new zoning code now being re-written), called for just such a streamlined system.

“The goal here is to make the easy projects truly easy,” Greenberger added. The more difficult and complex developments will always take longer to process, but getting the simple ones turned around quickly will help everyone, he said.

“Adoption of reforms to streamline and modernize Philadelphia’s development process will save tens of millions of dollars while making Philadelphia more attractive to private market investment,” the 2004 BIA report states. It can “result in huge savings to government” and “attracts developers interested in reusing abandoned land and rebuilding neighborhoods.”

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