TAMPA — It’s not unusual for new mayors to arrive at Tampa City Hall with a to-do list that includes ironing out the kinks in the city’s bureaucracy for handling building permits and other development plans.
Bob Buckhorn talked about making changes so fundamental that he described them as re-writing the city’s DNA. Dick Greco banned city employees from denying permits based on unwritten “internal policies.”
Now it’s Mayor Jane Castor’s turn. She starts with a city that’s been permitting about $2 billion worth of construction a year and has brightened its reputation as a place to do business. A couple of developers, including the increasingly busy Related Group, have told the City Council recently that getting development permits here is much easier than in, say, Miami, where Related is headquartered.
Major projects like Water Street Tampa, Midtown Tampa and Tampa International Airport’s $2 billion expansion are now in mid-stride. And there’s more to come: A major redevelopment of the West River area northwest of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is about to begin, and the 300,000 square feet of the old Austin Center professional buildings are being rebranded and refreshed as the Westshore City Center.
So a main problem is not encouraging development in the first place.
It’s keeping up.
“They have a good unit over there that has been functioning well," Castor says of the city’s construction services division, “but with the acceleration in the development here in our community, they can’t maintain that pace.”
In June, about two months after taking office, Castor appointed an advisory committee of local professionals from real estate, construction, the law, architecture and neighborhoods to assess whether the city has the people it needs to meet growing demands, to improve the user experience for both development professionals and residents, and to identify procedural bottlenecks and outdated regulations.
The group wrapped up its work last month with a series of recommendations that are more tweaks than major overhauls.
For example, the committee said the city’s Accela development software, which is meant to make city permits easier to apply for and more transparent to the public, is still too hard to use seven years after the city bought it.
“Many novice users, and even sophisticated and experienced builders, often criticize the system for not being user-friendly,” the committee said in its report to Castor. Some homeowners who hire a contractor to do a renovation or expansion can’t even use the system to track the status of the work being done in their own kitchens, the committee said, and that should change.
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As a result, the city is working to make Accela more user-friendly, and to provide classes for residents who want to learn more.
Other recommendations include:
• Reviewing the city’s fees for development filings and applications, some of which have been in place since 2006.
• Establishing an ongoing process to evaluate city needs in its development review operations. In the past, the committee said, previous updates resulted in progress being made, but there was no continuous assessment in place to keep performance from deteriorating.
• Making requirements more clear upfront, so that permit applicants don’t have to refile everything because they miss a step along the way.
• Considering the expanded use of providing development approvals with conditions that allow projects to move forward in certain circumstances. This could, for example, apply to interior remodeling jobs, or projects where the only remaining issue is not structural, such as the need for a maintenance agreement, or when only a single department has an unresolved issue.
• Looking into extending the city’s construction services center’s hours to nights or weekends to improve access for contractors, small builders and homeowners.
• Expanding the use of third parties to provide some functions now done by city staff. For example, the city is looking at a pilot program that would allow property owners to hire a private certified arborist to review whether their tree removal and replacement plans meet city standards instead of waiting for the city’s arborists to take up their applications. In such cases, the property owners would pay the private arborists themselves, but might see the fee they pay the city somewhat reduced.
To ensure the recommendations are carried out, Castor is hiring Carole Post as the city’s top economic development officer. She will replace Bob McDonaugh, who worked to set the stage for major projects like Water Street Tampa and the Armature Works before retiring in August.
Post has led Castor’s transition as a volunteer while she helps wrap up the opening of the University of South Florida’s new Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Water Street Tampa.
Post, 53, is USF Health’s associate vice president and chief administrative officer. Before that, she held jobs ranging from serving as city attorney and acting city manager for Palm Beach Gardens, a South Florida city a little larger than Pinellas Park, to working in the administrations of former New York City mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Working for Bloomberg, she managed a 1,200-member staff and a $350 million budget as the commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. She is scheduled to start at City Hall in mid-February and work full-time for 19 months on loan from USF.
Coming in, Post says the city’s challenges include matching resources to demands while ensuring that its processes are transparent, that it measures its performance and that it streamlines its rules and operations.
This requires some balancing. For example, like many local governments, including St. Petersburg and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Tampa already has a program where developers can use approved third parties to do some plan reviews or inspections. This is similar to what the city is talking about doing with arborists, but Post says Tampa’s program is not as easy to understand as it should be.
Improving the program could do two things, she says. First, for an applicant who sees time as money, it could create a way to get some reviews done sooner. Second, it could help the city meet peak demand without adding permanent, full-time staff.
“There’s an uncertain future, frankly, for our economy,” Post says. “We’re booming now, but will we be booming in three or four or five years?”
The city also is interviewing candidates for a job as chief building officer, who, Castor says, could step in when projects are at risk of getting bogged down in repetitive, multi-departmental analysis.
“That is someone who has the authority to make decisions when they fall into that gray area,” Castor says. “That will be very, very helpful.”
At the same time, Post says, the city is interviewing for another key job, chief sustainability officer. It will be outside development services, but will help ensure the city has a consistent approach to issues of sustainability and resilience across a wide range of operations, including development review, construction, transportation, community redevelopment and affordable housing.
Longtime development consultant Stephen Michelini has watched previous administrations work to improve development services and is impressed with the latest set of recommendations.
“There’s a lot of needed stuff in there,” he says. “I don’t think most people realize just how complex construction services are. It’s like a water balloon. You push on one side, and something has to push out somewhere else.”
Michelini gives credit to Castor and Post for bringing in consultant Robert LiMandri, a former New York City buildings commissioner who heads the code advisory division at Vidaris. Among its many projects, the New York-based consulting firm has been involved in redeveloping the World Trade Center site since just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Working for the city, Post says, LiMandri modernized the building departments for each of the city’s five boroughs to better deliver services with a customer focus.
LiMandri, whose firm is being paid $96,000 for its work with the city of Tampa, is knowledgeable, has a nuanced understanding of the city’s challenges and listens well, says Michelini, who met with him several times before the working group released its report and recommendations.
“He’s identified major issues with the city that the rest of us deal with all of the time,” Michelini says. Following through on the working groups’ recommendations could take six or eight months, he says, but they’re specific and relevant enough that if the city works at it and ensures that it has adequate staffing, “we’re going to see some improvements.”
That’s the idea, Post says. Developers and builders have to contend with rules on everything from building safe buildings to being aware of coastal flood zones and natural resource issues, so it’s critical that the city and private sector have a shared understanding of what’s necessary.
"It’s complicated to build in Florida, and it’s particularly complicated to build in a growing urban city like Tampa,” Post says. “We respect that it’s complicated, but it should not necessarily be a mystery.”
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.