My Office and More owner Kate Lake said a partnership approach with the city helped move her project along.
Tony Delgado

When Tony Delgado became Lakeland city manager last January, he knew there was a notion among some that it’s hard to do business with the city, that uncaring bureaucrats at City Hall enforce regulations to the letter, often halting or delaying new businesses or construction projects.

It’s a notion that doesn’t fit with Delgado’s drive to create a “customer-centric” culture that solves problems and figures out how to get to yes as often as possible.

So Delgado and his community development director, Jim Studiale, are tweaking a process that itself was a considered a reform to speed up new projects when it was implemented 10 years ago.

[box]Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of an article that appears in the current issue of The Lakelander magazine. The article was developed last fall as a trial collaboration between lkldnow and The Lakelander.  [/box]

That process is called Design Review. The idea is simple: Put somebody who wants to build or renovate at a table with representatives of the eight to 10 city departments that need to review the plans. It keeps applicants from having to schedule a lot of separate meetings and lets them get all of their questions answered at one time.

Over the years, a new step called concept review was added: Here business owners present a broad outline of their idea in the early stages, often before spending lots of money to get formal architectural or engineering plans. The idea is that the city staff can let them know early of any obstacles they’ll need to plan for – maybe an expensive sprinkler system or wastewater needs.

While it sounds good on paper, Delgado and Studiale concede that it’s still a complicated process that can get bogged down. “Tony and I have recognized that more and more people at the table are providing boilerplate comments and they’re not solving (problems) at the first meeting,” Studiale said.

As a result, sometimes more meetings are needed and city government gets a reputation for causing costly delays.

Delgado has a two-prong solution:

  • Bring in a quarterback who will act as an advocate. Delgado is putting transportation planner Chuck Barmby in charge of the Design Review Team. “Chuck is already doing the transportation review. He’s respected around the table. He’s non-threatening,” Studiale said. “And he’s got expertise on viewing the big picture,” Delgado added.
  • Adopt a broader view. Insist team members take a holistic view of projects that takes them outside their own silos. Make it clear they have the authority to make decisions at the meeting without delaying to ask higher-ups. “They need to know if they make a mistake, nobody’s going to chop their head off,” Studiale said.

Those changes sound good to Matt Clark, president of Broadway Real Estate Services, who said his company’s NoBay apartment-commercial complex benefitted from design review.

He would like to see other Florida cities have all the departments come together to meet with developers: “While some naysayers will complain about Lakeland’s permitting process, I have seen other communities that are far behind where we are.  We are currently working on a project on the east coast of Florida and there is no DRT process, so the different departments never get on the same page with the project.  It causes things to move much slower.”

Some of the projects that have gone the most smoothly are ones where the business owner conferred with city staff even before going through concept review, Delgado said. Examples he named include Brew Hub fronting I-4, the My Office and More small business workspace on Main Street downtown, and Posto 9 Brazilian Gastropub.

Brew Hub CEO Tim Schoen said he felt welcome by both the Lakeland Economic Development Council and people at City Hall when he was scouting sites throughout Central Florida a few years ago.

The permit process in Lakeland took about four months, he said, compared with the more than 18 months he has spent so far trying to get permits for a second Brew Hub plant near St. Louis. A key ingredient was working with local firms such as Wallis Murphey Boyington architects and Marcobay Construction who are familiar with the city’s design process, he said.

Likewise, My Office and More founder Kate Lake said she benefitted from working with local architect Marlon Lynn and contractor Ed Forgue, who were quick to consult City Hall from the outset and anytime problems emerged.

For Lake, it was a tough decision to replace an Orlando architect with Lynn, but she said it turned out to be one of the best decisions she made. Out-of-town professionals “don’t have the relationships. They might not realize the city might have some areas of code that are more stringent,” she said. “It comes down to information and relationships. Make sure you ask a lot of questions before you get into it.”

It’s not necessary to start your project with architects, engineers or builders who know their way around City Hall, city officials say, but it can speed things up.

“The locals know the process,” Delgado says. “We want to be able to facilitate the development teams to say, “I know your process; I know what we need to bring to the table; I know what the rules and regulations are.” Delgado said. “Where we found some concern is some folks didn’t really have that checklist at the beginning. So when they came, the reason they thought it took a long time is because we had to tell them, ‘These are the things the we need to see and you need to go back.’ ”

One fledgling business owner who went through concept review recently without an architect or engineer said he did considerable research, so there were few surprises. “It would have been valuable for someone who didn’t do as much research,” said Dan Thumberg, who took his concept for Swan Brewing brewery and taproom on Lake Wire to the Design Review Team in August.

His hopes for the process: “I see DRT as being a team of ombudsmen for the business owner. We’re not just the different groups dictating what you have to do. We’re a group of representatives of the different departments in the city who are here to help you do things the correct way but with a business mind. So understand that you need to be able to do this without breaking the bank.”

That’s not much different than Delgado’s conception of the way the Design Review Team should work.

The process

What: A business owner is required to go through design review before pulling a permit to build a commercial property, home or subdivision or renovate a building in a way that changes its use or 50 percent of the structure.

How Much: The cost for concept review is $230, and that much is deducted from the separate fee owners pay later at the time of design review: $500 for projects less than an acre, $980 up to five acres, or $980 plus $25 per acre for large projects. There is no concept review fee for projects applying for zoning or conditional use changes.

Incentives: To encourage developers to submit complete plans, the city allows one resubmission of the site plan but then charges $500 for additional submissions.

When: The Design Review Team typically meets every two weeks in the Building Inspection conference room on the first floor of city hall, and the prepared agenda allows an average of 20 minutes per applicant.

Who: Departments represented include Community Development, Public Works, Water Utilities, Fire, Lakeland Electric, and Parks and Recreation. They review things like compliance with zoning regulations and building codes, compatibility with nearby structures, impact on infrastructure (roads, water, wastewater, electricity transmission), drainage and stormwater retention, traffic, parking, pedestrian and bicycle accessibility, landscape and environmental impacts.

Application: The two-page application for concept review includes a five-page list of the development standards the various departments will review. Commercial site plans have a one-page application and six-page checklist.

Finally: The result of design review, Studiale says, should be a city with attractive and safe buildings. “People want to develop in Lakeland because of the clean look and because my neighbor is going to look as good as I’m going to look,” he said.

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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