Builders and developers in Richmond aren’t shy about sharing their frustrations with the city’s permits and inspections office. But more often than not, they don’t want to put their name to it.
Many who BizSense has talked to over the years and in recent weeks while reporting on the office’s ongoing challenges have been quick to criticize the city and offer suggestions for improvement, so long as their name stays out of an article.
Said one builder who asked not to be named because he’s active in the city and known at City Hall: “I’ve got too much going on, I don’t need to be put on that blacklist.”
He added, “I’m afraid to put my name on it, because I don’t want the workers there to be like, ‘He told on us. Hey, is that one of his applications? Put it to the back of the pile.’”
Another City Hall frequenter who went on-record with his grievances in a past report later said he paid a price for doing so, contending that he had a harder time getting permits for the project at the center of his frustrations after he spoke out.
That was before the current leadership responsible for the office — Building Commissioner David Alley and Planning and Development Review Director Kevin Vonck — were put in charge last year. Both have been credited with making recent moves that some see as reasons to be optimistic for the future.
But such reports and perceptions among the development community remain a common refrain, and are nonetheless concerning to Vonck and Alley, they said.
“I am dismayed to hear these types of comments,” said Vonck, who was named director last fall after leading the department in an acting role since the start of last year.
In an email, he added, “We will not tolerate any type of retaliation whatsoever from our employees. If a customer believes that he/she is being treated in a discriminatory or unfair manner, he/she should contact me immediately.”
Alley, a 20-year city employee who came up through the office before being named to lead it seven months ago, said such accounts do not match up with his experience at City Hall.
“I have received/investigated many complaints over the years as you would expect. However, none were related to employee retaliation or vindictiveness,” Alley said in an email.
“This type of behavior would certainly never be allowed or tolerated,” he added. “I hold myself and our staff to a higher ethical standard. How we represent ourselves reflects on how we represent the City of Richmond.”
Vonck and Alley have inherited an office that has been plagued for years by complaints from builders and developers of slow turnarounds for permits, inspection no-shows and other delays that end up drawing out their projects and adding to their costs.
They’ve also inherited attempted fixes that applicants say have ended up making such problems worse, such as the slow-to-roll-out EnerGov Citizen Self Service platform that’s used to process and track applications online, and a more recent arrangement to outsource some plan reviews to a consulting firm office in California.
While they’re continuing the latter to help reduce the office’s backlog of plan reviews, Vonck and Alley are planning to phase out EnerGov in favor of an in-house system that could ultimately lead to a longer-term replacement. An anticipated upgrade to the processing software is included in the city’s proposed budget for next fiscal year, which starts in July.
The move would bring an end to a decade-long process that only started producing results four years ago, when the first EnerGov rollout went live. Additional features were rolled out in the years since, bringing to life what the city had purchased in 2012, when it awarded a $1.6 million contract to Georgia-based EnerGov Solutions for the system upgrades.
Lory Markham, a former city planner who started at City Hall around the time the procurement process that led to EnerGov got underway, said dropping the system, which she described as overly complex and inconsistently used, is a gutsy decision but the right one to make.
“The city outsourced that fundamental function of local government to this company in Atlanta, and they were not capable of providing that function in a way that the city needed it, for a number of reasons,” said Markham, now a private development consultant.
“The recognition of that from David Alley and Kevin Vonck — and the guts that it took to say, ‘This system isn’t working, we’re going to get rid of it,’ after the city had spent all this money and all this time on it — I think that is a huge step in the right direction,” Markham said. “It’s not any one person’s fault; it just didn’t work, and it caused this huge backlog.”
‘It’s a vindictive thing’
Now in the development consulting business, Markham has an upfront view of the applicant side of the permitting process in Richmond, interacting with the office regularly on behalf of her clients. And with her added perspective from her time in City Hall, Markham dismisses any claims of vindictiveness or acts of retribution from the office or City Hall on the whole.
“I just think that that is ridiculous,” Markham said, laughing. “It’s not like there’s a list of people that if they come in, they automatically go to the bottom of the pile. Just like there’s not a list of people that if they come in, they automatically go to the top of the pile. There’s a system, and if you know how to work within that system … you’re going to get (the permit) easier.
“I always felt like the people that worked at City Hall, myself included, were there to make the city a better place. I never felt like there was like a conspiracy to target people.”
Still, the perception remains among some developers.
One of those is Tom Wilkinson, whose latest project over years of developing in Richmond is Port City, his conversion of the former American Tobacco Co. complex into income-based apartments.
Wilkinson, who said Port City will be his last in Richmond ahead of a planned retirement, alleged that he couldn’t get a certificate of occupancy for the project’s second phase after he complained about electrical inspection no-shows to Reva Trammell, the area’s City Council representative, who he said is a friend.
“I couldn’t get the CO because I couldn’t get the damn inspectors out there when they were supposed to get there,” said Wilkinson, adding that when they did arrive, “There was always something more that you needed to have. They didn’t like where you had a light switch positioned or something stupid like that.
“I spoke to Dave Alley, and 30 minutes after I spoke to him, I had my CO, because I was nice and he was nice and everybody loved everybody else,” he added. “But he shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to call in favors like that.”
Wilkinson said that he had an inspector tell him that because he got Trammell involved, he wasn’t going to do anything to help him.
“So, it’s a vindictive thing,” he said. “You would think that they would help you, because you’re investing in their city and increasing their property tax revenue. But it’s like they’re fighting you. They try to put up every impediment to your permit and inspection that they can. It’s like they go out of their way.”
Others have shared similar sentiments, including City Councilman Andreas Addison, who experienced his own frustrations with the permitting process while trying to open a gym in Scott’s Addition.
“The expectation was for me to figure out the solution, rather than it being, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ll accept,’” Addison said. He added that such frustrations with the city’s process and delays have caused some to avoid doing business there.
“I had been engaging with general contractors and plumbers and electricians to do work. I was hung up on when I told them the address,” he said. “To be hung up on because of the address and location of it being in the city of Richmond, it’s fascinating. People just saying, pretty much, ‘No, I’m not interested.’ That was a very eye-opening experience.”
Markham, the former city planner, acknowledged that there may be some variation in responsiveness from City Hall staff depending on different circumstances. But she said it’s human nature, not retribution.
“If you’re doing your job, and someone’s screaming at you and all you’re trying to do is help them, you’re going to be less-inclined to be speedy about it,” Markham said. “If you go down there with a hammer yelling at people, they might give it to you so you get out of their face this time. But they’re not going to be inclined to bend over backwards to help you next time.
“But the people who go down to City Hall and treat the people like people and understand human nature are the people who are going to get their permits the easiest.”
‘You don’t know what you don’t know’
Alley, the building commissioner, said he’s committed to showing such a culture doesn’t exist and won’t be tolerated in the office. He said he also wants the public to feel free to air their grievances without fear of retaliation.
“No one likes to receive a complaint. However, complaints are a useful tool for improving customer service and should be used as an opportunity to gauge our services,” Alley said in an email. “You don’t know what you don’t know until someone speaks out!”
Addison, the city councilman, said such dialogue will be needed as the city works toward improving the process. Having gone through it as a first-time business owner, he said he wants to see the development community come together with city staff to communicate what’s broken and how best to fix it.
“I want to have input from developers, architects, contractors, to share in what the process needs to be,” Addison said. “The more you can get that type of engagement throughout the process, it’s more successful, and all of a sudden we’ve done what’s been asked of us for 15 years and put that at the center of what we want to do for economic development.”
“Everybody acknowledges there’s a problem. So how do we fix it? I think everybody getting together trying to fix it together is the best solution,” she said, “and everybody acknowledging it’s not going to be something that’s fixed in a month. It’s taken decades to get here.”