Looking to build a commercial building, a new house or just add a room on an old house? Then don't move to Palo Alto, Calif., in the Silicon Valley. A new city auditor's report pointed out what almost everybody there already knows: It's a nightmare building anything in this college town (a neighbor to Stanford University).
How bad is it? It took more than seven months and eight separate hearings for a telecom firm to get permission to convert a warehouse into an Internet switching facility and more than a year and six hearings for an auto dealership to expand its showroom. "Palo Alto spends too much time on process and not enough on substance," the auditor's report said. "The process can be redundant, uncoordinated and wasteful."
Tell us something we don't know, say developers. "It's the disconnect, it's the inconsistencies about what to do," said one architect. He cited one couple who wanted to build a house with a porch on the second floor. Midway through the process, the city staff changed the rules about second-floor porches. No hearings, no notice. "(The clients) got so discouraged, they just stopped the process," he said. "They just quit."
What's the problem in Palo Alto? The residents are too smart for their own good. As the San Jose Mercury News explained, Palo Alto "values intellectual debate and the idea that everyone should have a chance — or many chances — to have his or her own say." Case in point: The "individual review" process, which gives neighbors the chance to sound off on any house that's two stories or more and can tie up simple projects for months.
But the city government's own processes are just as Byzantine and time consuming. A builder can be steered into any of 15 different building review processes, the city auditor noted, each with its own mysterious appeal procedures. Posted 10/15/2003
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