City sees surge in construction permit applications

City sees surge in construction permit applications

Michele Ellson
planning department

Permit tech Hilisha Hinson helps a customer seeking assistance at the permit center in City Hall. Photo by Michele Ellson.

Five years ago the city laid off half of its planning department, as the economy fell into a deep recession and construction projects came to a screeching halt. But now that the economy is recovering, the city’s permit counter is busier than ever, planning staffers say.

The number of permits requested from the city doubled between March 2013 and this past March, acting planning services manager Allen Tai said, and permit requests grew another 20 percent between March and May, when the department assisted 1,200 people with construction plans. On their busiest days, the city’s planners help as many as 100 people a day at the permit counter.

“It’s been kind of crazy,” Tai said.

Over the past few years the city has seen a surge in interest from developers with renewed access to the cash they need to build and a desire to finish projects while the market for them is still hot. But the improved economy may also be prompting homeowners – both new and longtime – to move forward on renovation projects and additions, Tai said.

“Maybe people were sitting on money, and didn’t think time was right. Now they’re coming in and trying to realize those plans,” he said.

Tai said the city is seeing a lot of requests for second-story or back-of-house additions, requests he attributes to Alameda’s older housing stock.

He said the trend isn’t confined to Alameda: Colleagues in other cities are seeing similar upticks in construction activity. And like Alameda, other cities laid off many of the planners who once handled the work.

Tai said the department has just four permanent planners and has hired contractors to manage the additional construction activity.

“Everybody is hiring,” he said.

During the downtime, the city also worked to make its planning and permitting services more customer-friendly. It opened a redesigned permit center at the end of 2013, expanded hours and services and retooled handouts in an effort to more clearly spell out the city’s permitting and process requirements for construction projects.

The city has also initiated Alameda at Your Service, a three-pronged customer service initiative aimed largely at boosting businesses and the city’s job and tax base that provides a liaison and additional services for developers building complex projects, new businesses and city tenants, and expedited planning and permit services for business owners seeking to improve their properties. People seeking business licenses, home occupation and sign permits and zoning clearance for a new business can do so online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We’re not quite sure when the end of this is,” Tai said of the construction rush. “What’s helpful and positive is, it’s forcing the city to re-evaluate our own practices.”