The life of a permit
The first building record in the city of Portland dates from 1907 — and the Bureau of Development Services still has all the physical paperwork associated with the plans filed away.
The printed paper collected over decades tells a story about Portland's permitting process that real estate development permit customers might gloss over in today's tiffs over timeliness, transparency and efficiency.
Kareen Perkins, permitting services section manager at the BDS, gave the Business Tribune a tour of the life of a permit to find out where it goes and who looks at it before approval is reached.
Right now, permit customers have to bring four complete sets of plans into the permitting office — but soon, after the BDS office remodel and Electronic Plan Review come online, that won't be the case.
"Right now, all 12 reviewers look at four sets of plans and route them to the BES (Bureau of Environmental Services), Water (Bureau) and all the bureaus. They have to share plans," Perkins said. "In the future, customers will be able to do it digitally in their bunny slippers."
Portland's permitting code has aspects — shaped by a history of local economics — that are unique, such as a landscaping requirement (among others).
"Most cities don't have this. Portland is awesome, unique and weird," Perkins said. "Trees on- and off-site both have reviews. We do reviews, send check sheets, and customers can come in any time to change the design of the project while it's being reviewed by others after the first review — then you can update plans."
While some customers complain about the lengthy process, city staff says if they would bring all the required materials in the first place — available online in an easily accessible list — they'd find themselves making fewer edits and reaching approval sooner.
"95 percent of people who come in here go through this process like (fingersnap) if they bring all the materials — and are not mad," said David Austin, public information officer with the BDS. "In the development review process, the very first thing on (the website) at No. 1 is what do I need for my permit. It is there, we just need to get people to look at it."
It was 1999 when the City decided to collocate permit services — including the Bureau of Environmental Services and Water Bureau — so customers wouldn't have to run around getting approval for right-of-ways, sewers, trees and zoning codes at all different bureaus' main offices.
Perkins started her job in 2000, when the permit center opened.
"There was a lack of coordination that, by necessity, is interrelated," Perkins said. "It's the only permit center in the U.S. set up where you can meet all the requirements for permits at once."
Some development customers still perceive the co-location as a reason for the permit slow-down — probably partly because the program hasn't been revamped in the 17 years since.
Then "2008 not only ramped up, it was so busy with all the larger-scope projects — then the Recession hit," Perkins said. "At the time, our bureau was cut in half. We lost 150 out of 350 people. We had to work smarter."
Much of the workload was additions instead of new development, which is typically more complicated than building something new from scratch because of how it has to match up with an existing structure.
The cool new tech at the time was faxing in materials. Now, the BDS is working on implementing completely online forms through the Information Technology Advancement Project and Electronic Plan Review, which are expected to come online in the next year.
"In 2010-11 we saw the uptick coming back, and tried to work with the existing system," Perkins said. "We didn't necessarily hire and train as quickly as we could've — we didn't want to over hire" due to recession layoff trauma.
"Over the years, we have made some changes," Perkins said. "Customers asking questions for free were standing in the same line of people who pay to have us review their plans."
Now, there are permit runners and only the owner has to be there — although they can bring in their contractors and designers. The bureau wants to have complaint-driven, separate programs so there are more permit portals than just the permit center.
"The consequence of not having a portal, they show up at the same time," Perkins said. "Screening a new single-family home takes 30-40 minutes. If five or six come in at the same time, it takes a long time. We hope to change that and provide better services."
Perkins today has a team of 37 — and there are three vacancies. Her department has 100 shifts a week, 20 per day, to cover.
Anyone can walk right into 1900 S.W. Fourth St., a building practically on Portland State University's campus. In the last few weeks since the Vegas shooting, the BDS has added more security guards downstairs — a move also partially due to the loss of local hero Ricky Best the department suffered after the MAX stabbings earlier this year.
From the lobby, any customer can walk right up to the permit center — an area with seats for customers, cubicles for city staff and countertops for them to work on blueprints together.
The first screen desk is manned by Kenton Kullby, who assesses what customers are there for and which route they should take to get their permits. He's also in charge of review slips.
Customers fill out color-coded paperwork before dropping it into organized slot boxes, which are picked up chronologically by the city staff: cameras are pointed at the boxes so staff can see when a new item is dropped in their inbox.
In the early days, only four drop boxes were out there, compared to today's 14. The intake process is predictable for developers, the scope of the project doesn't matter and it's very transparent.
"It worked well for a while, but we haven't had a system overhaul since that time (in 2000)," Perkins said.
As for types of permits, there's a difference between what happens to, for example, a basement ADU permit versus one for a 25-unit apartment building.
"You can see the difference: one type we can issue over the counter. All (those) reviewers can get to yes in 20 minutes," Perkins said. "With the Inclusionary Zoning representative now, a 25-unit building (applicant) would start talking to someone in the Housing Bureau."
The first screen makes sure each customer has four copies of the plans that meet the basic requirements. For the 25-unit example, the first step is the Housing Bureau, then on to the second screen.
After that, the development permit customer comes to the second screen. Everything is time-stamped so it's fair and nobody gets skipped.
"For an apartment building, we're looking for a lot more than an ADU," Perkins said. "This is the pathway you've got to go through to get a permit. If you come in for review, it's not over the counter."
Tech II Chris Riley and team leader Matt Weigert unroll all the plans, seeing if they include water lines, setbacks, right-of-way configurations, backflow, fire safety requirements, driveways, public sidewalks, scale, mechanical plans, life safety and things like that. These are minimal requirement checks.
"You have to have enough information for us to be able to do a mechanical review," Perkins said.
Subcontractors complicate it, pulling separate plumbing permits. Some sites have high levels of mechanics, such as distilleries, cannabis facilities or restaurants, which require separate plumbing permits. Electrical plans must include life safety.
"Those are all applied for separately," Perkins said. "According to submittal guidelines, 80 percent of the time, 80 percent of the projects have to have all this."
There's a submittal standards checklist online (see sidebar, Page 3), with the minimal amount of details that need to be included. The more of these an owner has on the blueprints, the fewer times she'll have to come back in.
"On the web, the permit tab is the most comprehensive option for pre-applications if your architect is
really on the ball," Perkins said. "The denser the city is, the more complicated the projects get."
The software will ping if there's an emergency egress — something left out of the necessary paperwork — and an application can't be approved for construction because it doesn't meet the code. The software doesn't allow drafts to be modified, for transparency.
"Now we're upgrading systems to prepare for our new online permitting," Perkins said. "Code development is at a national level. It's adopted by the State, and you can do local modifications ... to make sure what happened in England (at the Grenfell Tower) doesn't happen here."
Dozens died in the 24-floor Grenfell Tower fire last June, which according to BBC used questionable, cheap cladding in a recent refurbishment that has come under scrutiny and was neglected for years by local government (other factors contributing to the depth of destruction include malfunctioning firefighting equiment).
Next, at the Resources/Records desk downstairs, city staff does a research request form to make sure nothing presented already has a copyright. For a sewer connection, they get a BES permit. Lisa Baumgartner, team leader and development services technician III, sits in the permitting services area at the trades resource records desk.
Once a development permit customer has gone through early assistance and design review, she pays the cashier and drops off all the plans in a cart.
The cart is wheeled upstairs to the second floor for printing and distribution at the Permitting Services Center. It's currently being remodeled with more space to store people's plans.
The plans then move to the Day 2 counter on the fifth floor, where senior engineers and contractors review them. The spot is empty and available for temporary use because the BDS inspectors moved out, renting a space at CH2M, because they too ran out of room.
"We temporarily relocated the counter up here," Perkins said. "They unroll all four copies, assign bin locations and make sure it triggers the right reviews — the program is 17 years old."
The plans are assigned based on who has knowledge to review steel, life safety or plumbing, and then routes the plans to the different bureau sectors that need to see it. They manually input certain triggers such as a pollution prevention to review all new restaurants.
Ibrahima Barry, a contract Tech II, and Amit Kumar, a senior engineer, circle an oversized table inside a pigeonhole library of blueprints. Barry revises the plans as changes are made from one area, copying it to the other three sets of plans.
"It's fast-paced downstairs. When it gets here, it's a chance to slow down," Perkins said. "Depending on how complex a project is, we do those in chronological order. No project is more important — except Portland Housing Bureau affordable housing."
The techs at this location makes sure all the correct permits are set up and the right review groups are triggered, added or removed — for example, if there's no mechanical work, they remove the mechanical permit necessity.
Then, it goes back to the second floor, to the permit techs. Perkins hired nine new people here in the last month, where people come to make corrections to the plan.
The walls are lined with folding tables creating temporary customer work areas. After the remodel, which began October 16, the customer work area will be along the windows, also changing access to the staff area layout.
"We're giving the best space to our customers," Perkins said. "The temporary tables have been temporary for years."
Lastly, some projects see the sixth floor, where process management looks at bigger projects.
David Kuhnhausen is one of the process managers who sit up here. Projects on his plate include Providence Park, OHSU's developments and the Multnomah County Courthouse, along with some smaller, politically sensitive projects.
Once every step of the blueprint has seen its corresponding code expert and been revised to meet all the requirements, the permit is issued and the city will see new construction begin to take shape.
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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