By Phil Crone
Executive Officer, Dallas Builders Association
Once upon a time, Dallas Builders Association members were able to walk into the City of Dallas’s Oak Cliff Municipal Center (OCMC) and walk out with a residential building permit within hours. For some, the search for parking was nearly as long as the wait for a permit.
Not all days were so efficient. Occasionally lines would form in the wee hours of the morning for those hoping to get same-day review and approval. As contentious applicants jockeyed for position in front of the outdated old bomb shelter, it was increasingly clear OCMC needed a viable virtual component.
That journey began a couple of years ago.
The initiative advanced in fits and starts until COVID-19 pushed the system known as “ProjectDocs” decisively into the deep end.
Like everyone else, City of Dallas Building Inspections had to adjust quickly in March to county government mandates and the necessity of social distancing. As the industry sprang to life in late April and early May, it was clear the days of prompt permitting had gone the way of concerts, festivals, and packed stadiums.
“The expectations for online permitting have never been met,” said Kelly Reynolds of Keen Homes. “I recall when first introduced it took seven days or so and now it takes 30. I can’t see how anyone can feel this program is a success.”
In a city where zoning, development and utility connections are nightmarish processes, building permitting was a bright spot with far faster turnaround times than surrounding cities. While ProjectDocs is commonly used elsewhere, it’s deployment underscored problems that are uniquely Dallas.
ProjectDocs: Oregon Trail Déjà Vu
For those of a certain age, the software conjures up memories of “Oregon Trail,” a classic computer game that packed as much amusement and education that late ‘80s school kids could find in a five-inch floppy disk. The problem, of course, is that it is now 2020 and thousands of dollars in interest carry and millions in much-needed new tax revenue for the city are succumbing to the shortcomings of ProjectDocs.
Like the little green wagon trudging towards the Willamette Valley, ProjectDocs applicants encounter a litany of perils on the road to approval.
Instead of snakebites, dysentery, and broken axles, builders and contractors who don’t describe work with the right phrases, upload PDFs page by page as separate files, follow naming standards within character limits, ensure plans are in landscape orientation and documents are in portrait, purge layers from drawings, cloud over revisions and include narratives, or include a scale bar on drawings, are left stranded and must start anew at the back of the line.
Think you’re done after paying for the permit and getting a confirmation screen? Not so fast! If you don’t mark that “task” as complete, you, too, are stranded.
Bureaucracy, But Make it Slower
Complicating matters further is that the oxen pulling the system’s server at City Hall usually take a nap between 2 and 4 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, causing immense frustration for both applicants and city staff. Finally, if you fail to save your work after 90 minutes — you guessed it — your progress goes the way of your social life this year.
The Dallas Builders Association has engaged fully with city staff to make the ProjectDocs journey shorter, more predictable, and less perilous. I’m encouraged that both staff and some council members understand and appreciate the impact on Dallas and the businesses trying to build it.
OCMC had more than its share of problems before the pandemic. With COVID-19 expediting residential constructon’s flight to the suburbs, the stakes for getting this right couldn’t be higher.
A Comprehensive, Visible Roadmap
The path forward must include a comprehensive and visible roadmap that identifies the aforementioned “gotchas” in a way that applicants, regardless of computer acumen or experience in the city, can understand and anticipate. Simple over-the-counter permits for trades, fences, demolition, etc. need to be identified and separated from more complicated ones. This will allow jobs to finish and start on time.
Staff need to have the right tools to work efficiently and effectively. OCMC is the gateway for economic development in the city. Necessary investments in productivity will yield massive returns. Correspondingly, staff needs to be just as available and helpful via email and phone as they were behind the counter.
Changes will not happen overnight and the trail will remain challenging for some time. However, I’m optimistic we can start making meaningful progress in the near future.
Phil Crone is the executive officer of the Dallas Builders Association, the trade association and network of Dallas builders. Find out more about the DBA at dallasbuilders.com.