A Lot Of Eyeballing To Do

June 6, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — More than 1,200 project plans have arrived at the city’s Planning Department for review over the past 13 months, the most in recent history for that stretch of time.

Slightly more than half of those plans are residential projects, and the projects range from the smallest of the small to the largest of the large.

“These are plans submitted for the purpose of obtaining a building and/or a site-work permit, and may or may not have gone to the Planning Commission or Zoning Board,” said Louis Canfield, development center coordinator for the city of Grand Rapids.

“They range in size and scope from a residential deck to a new hospital,” Canfield added.

City planners have received an average of 93 project plans per month from April of 2007 through last April. For five of those 13 months, the number of projects submitted topped 100. The department received 133 — the most in the 13-month stretch — this past April.

“We’re very busy, and it’s a challenge from a staff standpoint to keep up. The Planning Department actually has half the staff we did in 2000,” said City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, who has been in the department for about nine years and replaced the retired Bill Hoyt as director in 2005.

Planning, like other city departments, has fewer staff to handle the workload, making it tougher to keep up as the department gets busier. And as Schulz pointed out, the number of plans that are submitted don’t tell the whole story.

“The permit numbers are clearly an indication that we’re busy, but that doesn’t account for all of the phone calls that we get with development questions, all of the developer meetings and consultations we need to do with the engineer or the landscaper or the sign person to bring in all the components that make a project work,” she said.

“There are also projects that never happen, they never come to fruition, but we still have to review those. We’ll get halfway through the process and the financing will fall through, or we’ve prepared it, we’ve reviewed it and for some reason or another, it’s not a go, or we’ve consulted with somebody and they don’t submit. So the numbers are an indicator of all of our body of work behind it to get to the permitting stage.”

The size of a project doesn’t always determine how much time a planner will invest in a review. Schulz said it can take just as long to look over a single-family home as it does a multi-story downtown commercial project. How long a review will take usually depends on how much information accompanies a submitted plan — the more the better — and how intricate a plan is.

“Urban redevelopment is not easy, and it can come down to feet and inches on whether or not a site works or doesn’t work for maybe a parking space or a landscape stretch. So there are a lot of different pieces (needed) to make a project work,” said Schulz.

Not every plan the department receives comes from the Planning Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals, as some plans don’t have to go through either board and only need to be reviewed by the department. But regardless of a plan’s starting point, planners still have to evaluate every one that is submitted.

“We touch all of it. We’re still reviewing it and touching it to make sure it complies with the ordinance,” said Schulz. “We can see everything from DeVos Children’s Hospital to a single-family home’s garage.”

The heavy workload means the planners are not getting everything reviewed as quickly as they did when the department was larger, and reviews can take a few weeks longer than developers were accustomed to. So those submitting plans need to show a little patience, and Schulz said they have.

“I think people have been very understanding and sympathetic. They understand that we’re trying to do the best we can with what we have. I have not seen a huge level of frustration because we do try to be customer oriented, and we try to communicate with them if there is going to be a delay or if there is a problem,” she said.

Schulz said the department can’t do as much hand-holding as it once did and slowly take someone through the approval process. Submitted plans need to be as complete as possible so planners don’t have to keep asking for more information.

“That has been a frustration for developers who are used to submitting something, then we’d work on it. We’d have all this re-work that used to happen. We’ve really tried to cut that out, and we’re trying to focus on getting it right the first time,” she said.

Schulz has 10 full-timers to handle reviews for the planning and historic preservation commissions, the zoning board, neighborhood planning, the Green Grand Rapids initiative, and the requests that go straight to the development center.

“What we accomplish in a two- to three-week time span is pretty phenomenal compared to other communities, where it could take months for the same review,” she said.

It doesn’t appear that the number of project plans coming to the city is going to lessen in the near future, even when the daily litany of bad economic news is expected to continue for the coming months — which is just business as usual for Schulz and her staff.

“I think if you listen to the media, you’d think that things are really bad out there. We have not seen a slowdown in the number of permits and the number of projects coming through. The Planning Commission agenda for the beginning of June has nine public hearings on it,” she said.

“I think if you look at those numbers and the questions that we’re getting and the projects that we’re seeing, we’re not getting any indication that there is a recession or things are slowing down.”

Project Plans, Commercial Vs. Residential

Over a 13-month period, 1,215 new project plans were submitted to the city of Grand Rapids since April of last year. Most were residential, but 46 percent were commercial. For five of those 13 months, the numbers of plans submitted topped 100, with the most coming to the city this past April.

Here is the month-by-month breakdown of the type of plans the city received since April 2007.

Year
2007
2007
2007
2007
2007
2007
2007
2007
2007
2008
2008
2008
2008
13-month total
Monthly average

Month
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December
January
February
March
April


Commercial
42
31
48
47
50
42
51
39
48
33
21
54
49
555

42.7

Residential
43
63
70
71
56
50
66
42
20
37
19
39
84
660

50.8

Total
85
94
118
118
106
92
117
81
68
70
40
93
133
1,215

93.5

Source: City of Grand Rapids Development Center, May 2008

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