Organizations work to make downtown permitting easier
By April M. Havens
Miami's Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Miami Partnership are making headway in streamlining the downtown retail permitting process to make it more attractive to retailers, representatives say.
Both organizations and representatives of downtown businesses met in January with City Manager Pete Hernandez to look at retail permitting improvements. "We recognize the importance and contribution of the retail sector in downtown, and we wanted to create a business-friendly climate that encourages them to continue to do business downtown," said Davon N. Barbour, the development authority's manager of economic development.
"We worked with major property owners, existing merchants and brokers representing major retail projects to recommend solutions to expedite the retail permitting process and overcome those bureaucratic hurdles," he said.
Robert T. Geitner, project manager for the downtown partnership, said the group's primary goal is establish "some level of predictability in the system.
"We found it varies, and each stumbling block in the permitting process is different," Mr. Geitner said. "There's been no common thread, and they've all happened at different points in the process, some city oriented, some developer oriented."
There's no one party to blame, Mr. Geitner said, and the point is to get everyone familiar with the process and to break downtown's bad reputation for retail permitting.
The bad reputation seems to be hit or miss among retailers. For example, Asod LLC Toys for Boys, an electronics store that opened one month ago at 45 E Flagler St., had no problems getting permits, manager Eli Henn said.
"It's so easy, who would complain?" he said. "It took us about two weeks to get it. The city was very good to us."
Mr. Henn said he sent his secretary to pick up all the paperwork, and she filled it out and sent it back with no problems. "We had three inspections, and then we were open," Mr. Henn said. "I guess we got lucky."
But development authority and downtown partnership representatives don't want the process left up to luck or chance, they said. They want a stable process and predictability.
The city manager and city leadership have been supportive of the organizations' attempts to create predictability and accountability, Mr. Barbour said. "We're developing a couple of ideas, such as a monthly report of applications for new permits," he said. "Having this report allows us to keep track of new business openings and keep in touch with them throughout the permitting process."
The further understanding of the retail permitting process, Mr. Geitner said, both the development authority and downtown partnership will get training, going "window by window by window through the process." That walk-through should take place within the next 30 days, he said.
"It's a major part of the commitment the DDA and DMP has made to work with the private sector to foster what those expectations are," Mr. Geitner said.
Mr. Barbour said two additional meetings during the permitting process should also help smooth out bumps. One will be a preplan review meeting that the two organizations will coordinate and may or may not attend, he said.
These meetings, between the applicant/retailer, building department and the applicant's design professional (architect, designer, engineer, contractor, etc.), will review "one more time that everyone's ducks are in the right row" before beginning the permitting process, Mr. Geitner said.
The other meeting would come after the plan review and permits are done, "to go through and make sure the expectations on the construction side are met, including the inspections that are required, and what that will be like," he said. "Some operators are generally familiar with the way things are done but have no experience with Miami's local codes and inspections."
Additionally, the fire department has agreed to review to see that all equipment is present and that everything works on the blueprint. When the building is nearly finished, the fire department will then do a field check to make sure things like furniture placement won't break a fire code.
"There are difficult changes to make once everything's in place and the walls are covered and décor is in," Mr. Barbour said. "The fire department has also agreed to put together a top 10 list of things that often become a snag in the end." This list will be given to retailers ahead of the game so they can prepare and plan immediately.
In talking with the business community, Mr. Geitner said, he has heard of it taking anywhere from 60 or 90 days to a year to get all proper permits and inspections. "The general buzz is that it's hard to get permitting in Miami," he said.
Mr. Barbour said "it's important for us to let the word out on how the landscape is changing. Information is power, and we want to manage expectations."