City Paper is not for tourists
When big developers need a building permit fast, they don’t go to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which issues the permits. They’re more likely to end up in the office of Armando Lourenco.
When the design and construction firm McKissack & McKissack was looking for quick approval of a renovation plan for RFK Stadium, it called on Lourenco. His firm, Lourenco Consultants, has done permitting work for many of the city’s big builders—JBG Cos., CarrAmerica, and the Akridge Co.
Permitting work marks a logical professional progression for Lourenco. During his days with the D.C. government, he ran the office that issues permits.
As Lourenco recalls, the permit system was near collapse in the late ’90s when the District was run by the congressionally imposed financial control board. The board chair at the time, Andrew Brimmer, demanded a novel solution to the backlog. Lourenco proposed having the city certify private firms to review permit applications. After a sign-off from a third-party reviewer, the permit would go to the DCRA, for what is usually a quick review and final approval.
The process was formalized in a 2002 law and continues to offer anyone who needs a permit a way around the still-dysfunctional and overworked DCRA. Developers pay for the private, city-blessed reviewer and cough up the standard municipal permitting fees when the District gives final approval to a project. Paying for a third-party review buys certainty for developers, who bleed green when projects are delayed.
Lourenco’s third-party program gave him a tidy, but he says unintended, career boost. He wasn’t even certified as a reviewer when he formed a consulting firm after leaving the government. “All of sudden, one of the construction companies asked if I could do permit review,” Lourenco says. “I got accredited by the city and didn’t think much of it. I figured it was a one-shot deal.” These days his third-party permitting business is brisk, mostly because things haven’t changed much at the DCRA.
Lourenco and a handful of other private review firms sit at the top of a three-tiered permitting class system. Below the third-party elites stand the facilitators/processors, experts in jamming a permit through the bureaucracy, without the expense of third-party review. At the bottom is D.C.’s Harry Homeowner, who walks through the DCRA’s front door with the mistaken notion that pulling a permit is as doable as staining your deck.
In recent years, development has boomed across the city, pushing up demand for permits and inspections. Without the third-party system, the DCRA would be even more overwhelmed than it already is. Proxies such as Lourenco work as a pressure-release valve for one of the District’s worst-performing agencies. The less charitable view is that the third-party reviewers offer a shortcut around genuine reform at the DCRA, a bureaucracy that’s stuck in the early ’90s, at best.
Agency veterans say the scene in the lobby of the building-permit office at 941 North Capital St. NE hasn’t changed much over the years. On a typical day, irritated people lug around blueprints. The lobby is almost exclusively the domain of permit processors.
Ernest Dorsey, a 10-year processing vet, says a lot of the “regular folks” end up in a different place: “They’re generally sitting in the hallways crying,” he says.
Processors are probably the best bet for the small-timer wanting to add on to his house or update a porch. They charge a reasonable fee and fight a battle that few residents have the time or patience to endure.
And, they contend, they’re not leeches sucking blood out of suffering D.C. residents. Just like third-party review firms, processors provide some relief for the city’s overworked permit reviewers. At least DCRA staff know that processors will show up with the right documentation. “We are more of a help to them than a hindrance,” Dorsey says. “A lot of the processors have been here longer than the folks behind the counter.”
Since 2000, the DCRA’s permit office has lost a lot of its key staff, including some managers who left or were forced out when reform-minded DCRA Director Patrick Canavan arrived in early 2005. DCRA spokesperson Linda Argo says the entire agency has been hit hard by retirements. She says “about 50” vacancies at the agency were not filled during fiscal 2005.
Laurenco says the brain drain has been relentless. “It has been five years [since I left], but the bottom line is they have been losing, losing, losing,” he says.
Processors say that during one stretch this summer, the absence of just one key zoning staffer led to weeks of delays and created a huge backlog. With the city running budget surpluses, processor Andy Fernebok of Fast Track Permit Services expected to see improvements. “It’s actually gotten worse within the last year,” he says.
Fernebok is having a hard time living up to his company’s moniker. He says the one-day “walk-through” permit for such simple things as window installations “usually takes three days.” The DCRA’s goal is to have more complicated projects back to applicants with comments within 30 days. “The 30-day target is a myth,” Fernebok says. The complexity of certain projects and oversights by applicants can lead to understandable delays, but he reports even with routine matters, “two or three months is a more realistic goal.”
The DCRA’s own numbers are slightly different. One agency report showed the average turnaround time for a walk-through during fiscal 2004 was a lightning-quick 23 minutes, according to Argo. The same analysis had the agency hitting the 30-day target 95 percent of the time. But Argo concedes,“I don’t know how meaningful that data is.” Not very: The DCRA has essentially dismissed it. Argo says the agency doesn’t have any reliable current data on how often it meets its one-day or 30-day goals, but Canavan is developing new performance measures.
Even those who can afford third-party circumventions are perplexed by the DCRA’s continuing dysfunction. Jim Abdo, president of Abdo Development, can’t understand why the District doesn’t devote more resources—and ask bigger fees from fat cats—to beef up the review staff. “People are willing to pay significant dollars for certainty,” Abdo says. “It confuses me as to why the District doesn’t approach DCRA as an opportunity to create certainty for developers who are willing to pay for it.”
Canavan sees the permit processors as symbols of the agency’s failures. “They are a cottage industry that has been built off the dysfunction of DCRA over the years,” he says.
Canavan understands the need for certainty in the permit process, but he also has a populist streak. Until the agency can promise an efficient process for all applicants, says Canavan, the DCRA is failing city residents.
Some of his fiscal 2006 budget increase will be used to beef up “the war room”—the back office where permits that should take just one day are handled. Staff shortages have forced the DCRA to cannibalize reviewers assigned to more complex projects to keep the war room functioning. “We would steal engineers…to staff the war room and rotate them through,” Canavan says. He’s now trying to hire 10 more workers in the permits office and opening a new office just for homeowners.
Canavan has also hired a new zoning administrator, Bill Crews, a local attorney and advisory neighborhood commissioner, who once was mayor of Melbourne, Iowa.
Canavan says he’s trying to pull the permit office out of the dark ages. Reviews for fire safety, mechanical and structural integrity, and plumbing are still conducted sequentially rather than simultaneously. Until this month, Canavan says, the DCRA’s computer system did not allow different specialists to review a permit at the same time. He’s now cobbling together a system that allows basic file sharing.
Canavan is optimistic, but longtime agency watchers have seen permitting nightmares outlive every DCRA director in memory. Merrick Malone is a former D.C. deputy mayor for economic development and oversaw the DCRA from 1992 to 1996, when the District was a financial basket case. Now he watches the agency from his job at Metropolis Development Co. The prolonged malaise, he says, stems from budgeting priorities that predate the control-board era—DCRA funds were cut to protect more-urgently needed social programs, and the agency has never recovered. “It has been treated like a second-class citizen,” he says. “Even now, without the budgetary problems, it is still a dysfunctional agency,” Malone says. “Every person who comes to that job is a Mr. Fix-It. Which ought to tell you something.”
Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham doesn’t even mention permits when asked about his priorities for the sprawling agency. The council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs chair focuses more on the $1 million he got in the 2006 budget to establish an Office of Consumer Protection, the better to beef up the city’s virtually nonexistent support for consumers. He also pushed through $800,000 for a tenant-advocate office. “We need to turn this [agency] around 180 degrees,” says Graham.
Canavan isn’t prone to such bold pronouncements. He doesn’t expect to put permit processors out of business for a long time—if ever. Third-party reviews will likely increase. He says for now that he has to be satisfied with fixing the basics. “I’m pretty happy to give you the bubble-gum-and-paper-clip permitting system right now,” he says.
•LL, being a humble fellow, doesn’t like to boast about influencing the political dialogue. However, he can’t avoid claiming credit for a prominent theme of D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp’s 58th-birthday party and campaign fundraiser at Georgia Brown’s last week. During the event, Cropp repeatedly focused attention on her young supporters. She was introduced by 38-year-old businessman Michael Warren, the perfect fit for a candidate trying to keep the old guard at arm’s length. Twice during her remarks, she mentioned how great it was to have “so many young people here,” urging the crowd to “give them all a hand.” At one point, Cropp singled out a group of 20-something men who she says help her with canvassing, referring to them as “my posse.” LL recently highlighted the preponderance of gray hair at Cropp’s Sept. 7 announcement that she is a candidate for mayor. The chairman kindly called twice to make sure LL made it to her youth-infused birthday bash.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.