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Councilman experiences permitting delay firsthand trying to open a gym

First District City Councilman Andreas Addison in the Scott’s Addition space where he’s opening a gym. He applied for permits to remodel the space over a year ago. (Jonathan Spiers photos)

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series examining development review processes at Richmond City Hall. For the first article, click here.

Builders and developers aren’t the only ones venting about plan review and permitting times at Richmond City Hall. So is a sitting City Councilman.

Andreas Addison, who once worked in City Hall before getting elected five years ago, learned firsthand what the development community has been griping about for years when he sought permits for a gym he’s looking to open in Scott’s Addition.

He signed a lease for part of a building early last year and put in for permits to remodel the space. Five months later, Addison said he thought everything was on track to get his building permit and start the work on schedule.

That’s when he got a call from City Hall.

He said he was told that the city was rejecting his permit due to an encroachment issue with an access ramp that he’d planned to install on the building’s exterior, on part of the 10-foot-wide sidewalk alongside it. To get the permit, the ramp would need to be moved inside the space. He said the change cost him an additional $40,000, and required him to scratch a planned juice bar for the gym.

“That phone call came at month five, and (the ramp) was on page two of the plans,” he said. “Why did it take four months to get to that point? That should have been said at month two at the latest.”

By September, nine months after he’d applied, Addison got his permit. Seven months of remodeling work later, he said he’s almost ready to open for business.

Permit notices are displayed on the door of Addison’s gym space.

But the first-time entrepreneur had also gotten a crash course in the challenges he’d previously seen as a city employee, and continues to see from his City Council seat.

“In that conversation, I burned through 12 months of free rent. I’m now paying my third month of rent, in a building that I really should have been opened in months ago,” he said. “For a first-time business owner investing in this type of project, it’s very discouraging.”

Addison’s experience is like many across the city that administrators and others are aiming to address by filling vacant staff positions, outsourcing some plans to reduce a review backlog, and an anticipated upgrade to processing software that’s included in the city’s proposed fiscal year budget.

Addison said he’s glad to see such efforts being prioritized, but that his own permitting experience has been all the more frustrating in light of past efforts he’d seen in his time as a management analyst for the city, as well as in his current role representing Richmond’s West End voter district.

He said one of his first assignments when he started working at City Hall was a proposed rate increase for permits that was meant to fund the purchase of Energov, the office’s current processing software that’s taken years to roll out. That was in 2008, he noted. 

“2022, and it’s probably the same if not worse of a process than what it was before,” Addison said.

“When I sit on City Council, what I see is I rezoned all this neighborhood TOD,” he added, referring to the “transit-oriented” zoning that was first introduced in Scott’s Addition to help drive development there. “I’m expecting that to create building permits, attract private investment opportunities, to create businesses to open, create jobs, build housing – all the other goals of City Council.

“Affordable housing, job creation, minority business contracting, minority business development and creation – those start from a building permit,” he said. “If that’s broken as a process, then we’re not going to achieve those goals.”

Targets set

City administrators have said they’re committed to fixing the process and acknowledge challenges that remain to be addressed.

In his regular report to the Planning Commission last week, Kevin Vonck, who oversees the office as director of the Planning and Development Review (PDR) department, addressed the topic with comments he’d also shared with BizSense in light of a report on the issue that had run that morning.

Planning and Development Review Department Director Kevin Vonck outside Richmond City Hall. (BizSense file)

“The situation we find ourselves in, in terms of delays, is unacceptable,” Vonck said to the commission. “We didn’t get here overnight. But since I assumed this role and became aware of it, I’ve made a commitment to improving it.

“As our application volume continues to hold strong, we’ve been stymied by budget constraints, personnel shortages, technology upgrades and outages, and COVID. But we continue to persevere,” he said. “There’s going to be more setbacks along the way; that just happens when making change. But I really feel we have the right team in place to make sure that that change happens.”

Vonck’s comments drew responses from Chairman Rodney Poole and Commissioner Elizabeth Greenfield, who also serves as vice president of government affairs for the Home Building Association of Richmond (HBAR).

“From an industry perspective, I know Mr. Vonck and his staff have been working hard, and I also know that they have been very engaging in reaching out to industry reps to be responsive and try to make improvements,” Greenfield said. “I appreciate what you’re doing and I know that you’ve got a tough job ahead of you. But we’re grateful that you are at least working with us.”

In recent weeks, an HBAR contingent met with Vonck and other administrators to discuss goals for addressing the office’s challenges.

Danna Markland

Danna Markland, HBAR’s CEO, said many of those goals are the same from two years ago, before the pandemic resulted in a hiring freeze and other factors that prevented them from being achieved.

In an email to BizSense, Markland said, “The pandemic put these implementation strategies on ice in the first quarter of 2020. But it’s time for the administration to prioritize the fix with the utmost urgency.

“The gravity of the situation can no longer be understated,” she said. “Development and construction costs continue to increase weekly, and the time it takes to get through the city’s plan review and permitting process is breaking projects financially.

“Projects of scale may survive because they have the financial resources to endure the prolonged process. However, homeowners, small to mid-sized development and building companies depend on predictability and certainty in processes — and that can’t be found in Richmond.”

Among the parties’ shared goals is hiring a deputy PDR director to act as a liaison between permit applicants and departments, and to add more permit specialists on staff. Those positions would help reduce intake times to targets of between three to five days for permits and residential plan reviews, five to 10 days for commercial plan reviews, 15-20 days for heavy commercial plan reviews, and two to three days for inspections.

Energov, which has been deemed ineffective, is to be phased out at a later date and replaced with new software. That process is expected to take multiple years with an in-house system to be used in the interim. And turnaround times for development plan reviews are aimed for 38 business days with zoning involved, 68 days without zoning with one round of comments, and 99 days without zoning with two rounds of comments.

A letter informing HBAR members of the goals said city staff intends to outline the changes in an ordinance to be drafted and introduced this spring.

Markland said HBAR wants to work with the city to help improve the processes for everyone, both its builder members and city staff. She said the development community similarly offered to help with the Energov rollout and would do so again through the next system transition.

“We hope that with this new system, the city takes us up on the offer to be partners in the process,” she said. “We are all invested in the city’s success and want to see this be successful.”

Working on the space over the weekend, Addison said he expects to open his gym in a few weeks.

‘You don’t “reject” my permit’

For his part, Addison, who’s set to open his Pure Fitness RVA gym in coming weeks, said any changes to be made must involve input not only from the building and development community, but also from individual applicants and first-timers like himself. Addison was at work finishing up the 5,000-square-foot space at 2921 Moore St. over the weekend.

“I want the development community, homebuilders and others at the table not complaining, but sharing what that new process needs to include. Because for me, this can’t happen again,” he said. “And I know it is. I have emails from other entrepreneurs and developers that are getting run around in circles around this process as well.”

Addison said the challenge is more than about staffing or software. He said it’s also in how staff approaches the job, which he described as a cultural challenge within City Hall.

“The expectation was for me to figure out the solution, rather than it being, ‘Hey, here’s what we’ll accept,’” he said of his permitting experience. “Every time I have to figure it all out and I go into another jurisdiction’s office (for opening) a business, it’s like, ‘Hey, let me help you through the process.’ That’s not what I’ve received at all (with the city).

“You don’t ‘reject’ my permit. You ‘can’t approve’ it,” Addison said. “I’ve been told my plan’s rejected, and I’m like, ‘No, you just can’t approve it. That shows, to me, the culture of the mindset of how this was designed in the beginning. I go to Chick-fil-A, everything is ‘My pleasure.’ That’s exactly how this should be.

“Rejecting my permit is saying no to investment, saying no to the jobs, saying no to the revenue. That is not on the table as an option,” he said. “We’re at a moment with this recovery and this opportunity as a city to grow and to truly embrace our future, and I feel like these details are what’s going to make or break our success.”

Correction: The name of Addison’s gym is Pure Fitness RVA. An earlier version of this story referred to a different name listed on his building permit.

Councilman experiences permitting delay firsthand trying to open a gym