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Rocky launch of Seattle’s new construction-permit system causes delays, anger

The number of Seattle permit applications completing initial review plummeted 75 percent from April to May, from 266 to 66. Builders say problems with the system are setting their projects back by weeks or months.

Debacle. Screw-up. Nightmare. Hell.

Those are some of the words builders use to describe Seattle’s new $14 million online system for construction permits, inspections and complaints.

The botched rollout of a flawed system has cost time and money, they say, angered clients and delayed projects the city needs to house its exploding population.

Soon after launch, the new system repeatedly stalled and permit documents appeared to go missing. Tempers grew so hot that at one point the city called the police on a livid customer.

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“This system has been a pretty big disaster,” said Maria Barrientos, whose company develops mixed-income apartment buildings. “I don’t know why there are so many problems and glitches, but they should have been vetted before the launch.”

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) began planning for the new system years ago but chose to transition at an awkward moment — the start of the warm-weather construction season at the peak of a historic building boom.

The department already was dealing with severe backlogs, and the chaotic April 30 transition made them worse, affecting projects ranging from kitchen remodels and backyard cottages to stores and apartment buildings.

“The recent launch … did not meet our expectations for effectiveness and service,” SDCI Director Nathan Torgelson acknowledged in a public message July 2.

“We know that this rocky rollout had a negative impact on our customers and the public, and I am very sorry about that. We’re working hard to make this right.”

The number of permit applications completing initial review plummeted 75 percent from April to May, from 266 to 66, meaning some 200 projects were initially set back.

SDCI is processing more applications again — 229 in June — and is working to improve the system. But dozens of issues remain unresolved, according to officials and interviews with a dozen architects, developers and contractors, many of whom said they must visit or phone the department for information they used to get online.

For example, a calendar for intake appointments that must regularly be booked months in advance does not show which days have openings, so builders must click on date after date after date to hunt for appointment times.

The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) have written letters of complaint.

“It’s more than infuriating,” Barrientos said. “You know that you’re on the clock. You want to build housing and you see the costs going up, and you have zero control.”

“Huge opportunity”

Discussions about a new system for the city’s construction and land-use permits began in 2008. They were shelved during the recession and revived in 2012, leading to a request for proposals in 2013, said Andy Higgins, SDCI’s engineer-services director.

Despite minor updates over the years, the Hansen system selected in 2000 and in use since 2002 could no longer be relied upon, Higgins said.

It was at constant risk for crashing, could not be easily accessed with mobile devices and used special coding that only longtime Seattle employees knew.

“Think about the technology available in 2000. All the new systems are web-based. Hansen had to be installed on every machine,” he said. “We would get a notification that Hansen was locking up. Every day, we would have to shut down and reboot.”

Though the company behind Hansen submitted a proposal, the city chose a new vendor, Accela. The winning bid was more costly, with weaker management and implementation plans, but officials gave it high marks on the technical side and were intrigued by the prospect of using Accela throughout Seattle government, Higgins said.

The city’s transportation department subsequently chose an Accela proposal, and other agencies are working with the vendor. In theory, the systems will eventually connect, allowing departments to share information and better serve the public.

“We were looking at the bigger picture,” Higgins said. “We saw a huge opportunity.”

Preparing the SDCI system took time, however. A plan to launch in late 2016 was pushed back to early 2017. The rollout was later pushed back again, partly because an Accela subcontractor had trouble converting data from the old system to the new one.

Officials still had concerns before the April 30 launch based on beta testing, and they considered waiting until Memorial Day. But they were worried about the Hansen system dying and thought they could address their concerns post-launch, Higgins said.

Beyond $12.3 million spent to buy and launch the Accela system, SDCI has budget authority to spend $1.5 million on “system enhancements” this year, Higgins said.

“We knew there were going to be some limitations and challenges,” he said.

Launch goes haywire

Those limitations and challenges proved much worse than anticipated.

Immediately after Accela went live, the servers were overwhelmed and the system began crashing — partly because large numbers of builders were trying to create new passwords at the same time, SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens said.

“The staff down there were reduced to legal pads and pens,” said Mark Schuler, an architect. “You couldn’t even sign on.”

The city’s information-technology department responded, but the server problem was only the beginning. In the first week, SDCI reported seven other distinct issues, ranging from document-upload to inspection-scheduling glitches.

Meanwhile, an automated phone line for scheduling inspections also had problems.

Some projects were lost in the changeover, while others were assigned incorrect statuses. As builders stewed, tensions flared.

“During a phone call,” spokeswoman Wendy Shark said, “a customer made an off-the-cuff remark that could have been considered a threat.”

“We contacted building security who reached out to SPD to help assess if action was necessary. SPD contacted the customer, who apologized and assured that he was not making a threat, but was only frustrated,” Shark added.

In interviews, builders praised SDCI staff for their patience, blaming their troubles on a system that staff also have struggled to use.

Backlogs worsened

Looming in the background as SDCI prepared to launch the Accela system were permit backlogs. This was in large part because of the city’s yearslong construction boom.

Measured by the number of permit applications accepted, the years 2013 through 2017 each set records for Seattle, hitting more than 7,000 last year, Higgins said.

Before the boom, Barrientos said, she could expect to obtain a land-use permit in six months. For the past two years, the norm has been 18 months, she said.

In 2013, more than 64 percent of medium-complexity permits completed their initial reviews within two weeks. Through April of this year, 25 percent hit that target.

Then the transition to Accela happened. In May, less than 11 percent of medium-complexity projects hit the two-week target.

“Our unforeseen challenges after go-live really bottlenecked some areas,” as staff were pulled away from their regular work to deal with the problems, Higgins said.

Officials have made strides since April, Higgins said. Seven new hires for a permit-specialist team should help, and SDCI plans to overhaul the Accela system’s clunky intake-appointment calendar later this month.

But there remain 81 open items on SDCI’s list of “system enhancements,” including expected and unexpected problems, according to Stevens. Those ongoing issues are hindering construction projects, AIA Seattle Executive Director Lisa Richmond wrote in a July 25 letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan.

“The new system … continues to cause severe disruptions,” Richmond wrote with AIA Seattle President Sidney Scarboro, citing problems with looking up permits, uploading documents, projects being lost and the lack of a user dashboard.

Interviews back up that assertion. Erich Armbruster, president of the local Master Builders Association, said his company hired an additional staffer just to work permits.

Delays caused by the Accela system are hard to distinguish from those caused by other challenges, but many architects say they believe the new system is causing their projects to be set back weeks or months.

According to SDCI, the Accela system was designed to automate tasks and for inspectors to submit results quicker, using phones. But some builders say the problems with the system have actually caused them to call and visit SDCI in person more.

“Nothing has really gotten better,” said Sara Emhoff, an architect at Board & Vellum.

Time, money and housing

Builders say the impacts are wide-ranging. First, the problems with the system are robbing them of time and money. “Some firms have had to turn to professional permit expediters,” AIA’s leaders told Durkan.

The backlogs also matter because developers must pay bills on their properties while they wait for their permits — and they pass those costs down the line to clients, homebuyers and renters.

“When you have three projects, and you’re paying $4,000 a month in interest payments on your properties, that adds up,” said Anthony Maschmedt, a developer.

Many Seattle residents are sick of developers. But no one likes to watch properties sit vacant and, as long as newcomers keep moving here, elected leaders say the city needs much more housing. The delays are affecting projects of every kind, including large apartment buildings, AIA’s Richmond said.

Some builders are avoiding major setbacks. Mercy Housing President Bill Rumpf said SDCI has helped move along a project by the nonprofit in Mount Baker.

“We’ve had some glitches, but they’ve worked closely to keep us on track,” he said.

But Barrientos says her company, which is building rent-restricted apartments in the Chinatown International District, is experiencing the crunch.

“We’re going to maybe lose a couple months,” said her business partner, Kristin Ryan. “Rents in Seattle are related to supply, and this is another constraint on supply.”

Even for small projects, there are consequences, said Matthew Aimonetti, a contractor who specializes in decks. Rather than wait for permits, some homeowners are going rogue, he said.

“Guys like me who want to do things right and we’re getting our throats cut by schmucks off Craigslist,” Aimonetti said.

To handle complaints about the Accela system, SDCI plans to create a new customer-service team. Many attributes of the old system that users liked were custom-built and will be added over time to the new system, Higgins said.

But the rollout has raised questions about whether the city’s money was well spent.

“It’s like having a nice custom-weighted hammer, and then someone takes it away and gives you a rock,” architect Daniel Corcoran said. “And the rock costs more than the hammer.”


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