In an effort to streamline and shorten the time it takes to vet construction projects, the city of Greensboro, N.C., recently opened a Development Services Center within its City Hall, which brings together under one roof staffers from every municipal department that approves a development plan.
The city unambiguously has set up this Development Services Center, which opened officially on Jan. 3, to present itself as being even more pro-growth and developer-friendly than it had been previously. Statistics compiled by Development Services indicate the number of structural and mechanical permits applied for in 2010 increased by 24% over 2009, while commercial and residential building plans submitted for review increased by 56%.
Since Nov. 1, when the city “finally got the right people in place,” says David Jones, its chief building inspector, through January, Greensboro saw 41% more plans reviewed than during the same period a year earlier.
City departments everywhere are notoriously territorial, so the ability of Greensboro to get its various departments to work together is noteworthy in and of itself. Everyone started talking about a year ago, and it took nine months to work out the details, says Jones. “It helped that we got buy in from all of the department heads and the city council,” he recalls.
Before the center opened, departments involved in reviewing and approving development plans were housed in three buildings around the city. And the review process could be arduous. A technical review plan, for example, required developers to submit 14 paper copies that would then be distributed to different departments. “It could take a week just getting these printed up,” says Kenny Carroll, the city’s engineering plan review coordinator.
Now, these plans can be submitted as an electronic file, such as a PDF, and get comments back the same way, so that a review process that took a minimum of six weeks has been cut in half, says Jones.
Technology drives the center’s efficiencies. The city’s assistant manager, Andy Scott, obtained a DVD from Zucker Systems, a leading expert in centralized development centers, and distributed it to each department “so we could see where are flaws were,” says Carroll.
The center features an interactive Smart Board, which Greensboro claims is the first of its kind to be used in a development center. That Smart Board allows staffers to review and edit a developer’s plan on-screen, so that the developer could leave the room that day with a revised plan in hand. To avoid conflicts of interest, Jones and Carroll say that the city only advises developers on what is or isn’t permissible based on existing building codes.
By having staffers from every relevant department at the center, decisions can be made quicker. Previously, the city’s technical review committee met every Thursday; now it can meet every day, if needed, expediting the review and approval process. The center also offers predevelopment meetings to allow developers, builders, or landowners to get zoning information.
The cost of opening the center was minimal, says Carroll. “We took existing staff from the departments, so we didn’t add any new salaries.” A 3,500-square-foot area in the Melvin Municipal Office Building, Greensboro’s City Hall, was reconfigured to accommodate the center. All told, the retrofit cost $63,000. The Smart Board, which the center bought secondhand from the fire department, cost around $1,700.
While Greensboro doesn’t have a lot of new residential construction going on right now (it issued 342 single-family permits in 2010), there’s considerable activity on the multifamily and commercial sides. There are several colleges in the area, so apartments are in demand. Jones points specifically to projects with 1,400 and 600 units that are currently under review.
The center has attracted interest from local media as well as other municipalities. Officials from Raleigh, N.C., are scheduled to tour the facility. And Carroll says that a group from Georgia, which was in Greensboro to promote the opening of a car wash, visited the center the day it opened. “They videotaped what we were doing to show their planners.”
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.