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Buffalo seeks to speed up construction permit process

With barely a minute’s mention, the plan to expedite construction was hardly noticeable to most attendees of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s State of the City address on Friday.

After all, an allocation of $300,000 for unspecified new software to facilitate more building permits doesn’t sound anywhere near as exciting as a new downtown grocery, a new carousel at Canalside or new support for the struggling city schools.

But Brown’s promise to make the process more efficient was music to the ears of local builders, developers and architects, eager to remove speedbumps in the city’s growth.

“Buffalo historically has been a place that has been slow to get building permits,” said William W. Tuyn, vice president of development and diversification at Forbes Capretto Homes, and current president of the New York State Builders Association. “We are definitely in support of any efforts to streamline the process and speed it up.”

While specific details of the proposal were sketchy, support for the concept certainly isn’t.

“I applaud the city of Buffalo and Mayor Brown for identifying an existing barrier and making strides towards bettering the process for those individuals who are assuming risk to make the city a better place,” said Ryan Glenn, chief estimator for Brawdy Construction Inc. in Clarence. “The permit process certainly should be streamlined in any way reasonably possible.”

To be sure, not everyone complains of problems dealing with the city. “I have seen the process get remarkably better over the five-plus years we have been doing projects in the city,” said developer Nick Sinatra. “The permitting process has only been slower than one would like due to volume. The city is a victim of its own success in that regard. There are so many projects going on and only so many hours in the day.”

Even so, “time’s money, so anything that can be more efficient surely can help,” said David Pawlik, president of CSS Construction. “There’s so much work going on that there has to be a system that’s out there to keep up with the demands. It’ll be very much welcome, because it doesn’t look like construction inside the city of Buffalo will be slowing down for a while.”

The torrent of redevelopment activity in Buffalo is changing the face of the city, while restoring confidence among its residents. Older buildings are being renovated and repurposed at a pace not seen in decades, while new construction has picked up not only on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, but also on former parking lots and brownfields that previously sat neglected.

Government largesse, generous tax breaks and incentives, and an influx of private dollars have played a major role. But developers, architects and builders say they also give credit in large part to Brown and his administration, which is known for becoming more business-friendly by enabling projects to get approved and in the ground faster and with less hassle than in the past.

“We have not had any issues getting permits,” said Aaron Siegel, president of Franklin Asset Management.

“The city and the administration have been unbelievably responsive any time we have had an issue. The traditional hierarchy and bureaucracy you would find in some other cities has been decidedly flattened here.”

But one issue that remains problematic, those in the industry say, has been the need for obtaining, filling out, and submitting the initial applications and forms by hand, on paper, and in person.

“There is a problem with getting permits within a timely fashion,” said Matthew W. Meier, partner at HHL Architects.

“It might be able to be reconciled if it didn’t have to occur in a linear fashion, and if there was more staff available to do reviews. It still takes time for it to get off of everybody’s desk and get to the next one,”he said.

That’s not criticism of the department’s staff, others say, but just the outdated nature of how the work is done in a high-tech age. “I’ve been working on a lot of multi-phase, difficult projects recently, and the people in the building department have been excellent,” said Robert E. Stark, partner at CJS Architects. “But on the technology end, could they upgrade things on the Internet? Absolutely.”

So city officials, led by Permits and Inspections Chief James W. Comerford, have talked of introducing an electronic system that would allow developers, architects, engineers and contractors to submit the paperwork online, through the city’s website. The forms would continue proceeding electronically within City Hall, and would also allow the building department to see the architectural plans, identify potential issues or questions, and email them quickly to the architect or engineer to get them resolved.

Still, technology itself goes only so far. “Online applications and tracking software certainly will help the archaic process,” Meier said. “But if there aren’t more people to actually review and approve the plans, no amount of software will improve it.”