Friday, April 3, 2020

Lack of city hall tech risks making construction sector sick

Using technology to make public meetings more public, or to
be held at all during the pandemic, has suddenly become more
important. On March 24, the Greater Cleveland Regional Tran-
sit Authority held its first-ever live-streamed board meeting at
the urging of board member Justin Bibb (center). Without the
meeting, several potential job-creating agenda items couldn't
be acted upon and might be postponed a month or so (CPT).
On March 24, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's (GCRTA) Board of Trustees did two things it had never done before.

One, GCRTA's board voted to help form and partially own a unique public-private corporation to acquire and oversee development of its Ohio City Red Line station-area property in partnership with Carnegie Management and Development Corp. That was among several potential job-creating items on that meeting's agenda that included the sale of Midtown land to the Cleveland Foundation.

And two, GCRTA's board made those decisions in its first-ever virtual meeting, broadcast live through Facebook with public comments and questions accepted by e-mail. The live-streamed board meeting was forced out of necessity by the COVID crisis but GCRTA had been discussing the idea for months, said Justin Bibb, a GCRTA board member.

A total of 1,213 people viewed some or all of the live GCRTA board meeting, according to Facebook's statistics. That's far more people than could have ever fit in the transit authority's board room at 1240 W. 6th St. in downtown Cleveland. That's also far more people than could fit in their schedules to attend the meeting, even under normal circumstances.

"This is huge and makes me excited about how we can continue to use simple, low-cost technologies to engage with riders," Bibb said afterwards on Twitter. "This was a big priority for our Ad-Hoc Tech Committee and (I'm) happy we were able to advance it forward quickly. COVID-19 has showed the importance of having resilient operating models to continuously engage and serve residents."
In Miami, Florida, a city commission meeting proceeds as
scheduled on March 25 despite some commissioners self-
isolating. That was because the City of Miami had already
used technology to simplify permitting and enhance public
access by live-streaming city meetings (Mike Sarasti).
But the same cannot be said for nearly all local municipal governments. Their meetings of city councils, planning commissions, boards of zoning appeals (BZA) and other scheduled public gatherings remain canceled for the foreseeable future. That has stalled proposed real estate developments big and small and their resultant job creation, several developers said.

While city officials in many communities say the meeting cancellations are necessary to comply with Sunshine Laws, technology is making that contention questionable.

A few Cleveland-area suburbs like Westlake are continuing to hold live-streamed city council meetings on their Web sites yet most continue to cancel all planning and BZA hearings at least until the end of April.

But the City of Mentor is live-streaming all city council, planning commission and BZA meetings. And the City of North Ridgeville is holding its city council, planning and BZA meetings as scheduled -- all via YouTube.

They are the exceptions, not the rule. And while Cleveland accounts for more than one-fourth to one-third of all new residential units built each year in Cuyahoga County, the City of Cleveland reportedly has no plans to institute virtual planning commission, landmarks or BZA meetings.

Real estate is considered an essential activity that should continue during the pandemic crisis, according to Gov. Mike DeWine's March 23 order.
City of Cleveland guidance on how
to submit applications for building
permits, rental registrations, certifi-
cates of disclosure or occupancies
for residential properties (AIA). 
Cleveland Planning Director Freddie Collier didn't respond to questions e-mailed to him prior to publication of this article.

However, some building permits that do not require new or additional design/zoning/building code reviews or appeals can be obtained through Cleveland's online portal. Also, rental registrations and certificates of disclosure/occupancies for residential properties can be obtained by contacting the city, by mailing them to the city, or by dropping off applications (not checks/money) at the drop boxes at the front/rear entrances to City Hall, 601 Lakeside Ave.

Cleveland isn't alone among regional peer cities in its cancellation or indefinite postponement of planning/BZA-type meetings:

  • Pittsburgh (postponed until further notice);
  • Columbus (canceled until at least April 14);
  • Cincinnati (canceled until at least May);
  • Buffalo (canceled until further notice);
  • Detroit (canceled until further notice).

The City of Indianapolis reports on its Web site that the planning department continues to conduct business albeit remotely due to COVID-19 precautions -- as does Cleveland's. And Indianapolis' site is unclear as to whether planning/BZA meetings will continue to be held at all.
City of Miami's multi-media desk for managing the live-
stream of public meetings as well as communications so the
public can interact with those meetings (Mike Sarasti). 
Building project reviews are needed to meet continuing housing demand, despite the economic slowdown.

"We're actually surprised at the number of clients who are still out there and want to buy a home," said Bo Knez, founder and president of Knez Homes, one of Greater Cleveland's largest housing developers. "There was a housing shortage before we went into this in February and March and it's still there."

He said that capital liquidity is also still available to fund new projects and build new housing inventory. But the biggest hindrance to starting new construction projects and creating more jobs is a lack of access to city halls, he said.

"Many of them are not electronically capable" of handling new plans, project applications and issuing building permits, Knez added, without pointing fingers. "So we're working with the ones that can move forward. Those are the cities that are electronically capable."

Even among construction projects already approved and permitted, getting building inspectors to show up at construction sites to approve work and issue occupancy permits is taking more time, said one construction manager who spoke off the record because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The growth of construction jobs in Greater Cleveland increased
by at least 8 percent or nearly 3,000 jobs in each of the first two
months of 2020. It was the fastest growing job sector in the re-
gion which lost more than 2,000 jobs overall in the same period,
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the booming
Hingetown section of Cleveland's Ohio City (Patrick Shepherd).
The National Association of Home Builders this week issued a report showing that each new single-family home built creates an average of nearly three jobs while each new rental apartment creates 1.25 jobs.

For big projects like the City Club Apartments or the Circle Square development, that's several hundred jobs for each project. Those new jobs create a ripple effect throughout the economy, generating tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenues to local, state and federal governments per new construction job, the association says.

Those jobs and their benefits will go to the cities who are best prepared technologically, said Bibb, who is rumored to be considering a run for mayor of Cleveland in 2021.

"We’ve got to find a way to modernize and streamline the permitting process," he said. "Making it easier for residents and businesses to interact with government helps to create more trust and confidence in our local leadership."


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