Saturday, May 1, 2010

Kafka Lives in Berkeley

When I was a kid, people would joke about the bureaucracy that supposedly existed in the Soviet Union. I remember people saying that, from the time you applied for a car until the time you could buy one, was a period of 12 years. Americans were smugly superior in the efficiencies of our governmental systems.

Now the USSR is no more, and our bureaucracies are as cumbersome as any could be. Take, for example, the City of Berkeley. We have had more dealings with the Permit Center, the Building and Safety Department, Forestry Department, Planning Department, Transportation Department, Zoning Department, Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Electrical Engineer, Department of Public Works, Berkeley Police Department - Traffic Division, the Berkeley Fire Marshall, and AC Transit. The people for the most part have been very friendly and tried to be helpful, but the system they are working under is unyielding and burdensome. Individuals have told us how much they like our projects, but mostly they have been unable to help us in any substantive ways.

Here are some highlights:

We attempted to submit the plans for the houses, because they are both on one parcel of land - but the City decided that we needed to submit twice (and, of course, pay two permit fees) since there are two properties (when we got permits for work on Parker Street, we got one permit, despite the fact that there are two houses with two addresses).

We were unable to submit the Building Plans for the Cheney Cottage until this week, because the house did not have an address. The Delaney House is located at 1634 62nd, and the house on the other side of the Cheney Cottage is 1630 62nd Street. Yet the City of Berkeley needs 6-8 weeks to determine an address (we asked them, "What else is being considered? 1620-12?")

We have had to apply for a demolition permit for the move of the Delaney House. By the City's own ordinance, a demolition permit is required when "50% or more of the structure is being demolished". As we are demolishing just the basement (20% of the structure), we were sure we were not required to get one. But the City staff told us that, the only way they have to track a house move is via a demolition permit - so because they can't keep track of the move (the house is moving approximately 25 feet), we had to shell out $900 for demolition permit that their own rules say we didn't need.

They are also requiring us to get a demolition permit for the old Delaney House "foundation" The house currently sits on a brick foundation - we plan to pick it up, brick by brick, and add it to the enormous pile of chimney bricks from both houses.

As blog readers already know, the City required us to move the Cheney Cottage across town (a distance of several miles) rather than to our own lot, because the permits weren't ready - they would not allow us to move the house to our own lot to save it from damage, and store it there until the permits were done (which everyone acknowledged was going to happen). And despite having applied for moving permits to move the house, the City neglected to notify the Berkeley PD that they had authorized "no parking" zones, so the police did not come to help with ticketing cars parked in no parking areas (so they could be towed) until two hours after we made the request.

The worst part of all this is that there is a good reason to get permits: cities want to ensure that people are doing work to code as a life/safety measure. Yet since we have begun this process, many many people have told us "I did work on my house and didn't get a permit, just because of their process" So the cumbersome and unyielding bureaucracy they have created is keeping people from doing what makes sense: having the city verify that work is done to code.

As a result of most people skipping the permit process, the City also does not collect revenue from permits. This undoubtably increases the fees for permits, which then create additional burden for people who want to do legal work.

When we inquired about reducing permit fees, we were informed that the City does not waive any permit fees. Yet Weatherford BMW recently got their building fees completely waived.

The system is set up so home owners, and people who are merely trying to improve houses in the City, are punished and put through the wringer. We still have no idea when we will have the permits to move the Cheney Cottage.

The City of Berkeley claims to have housing priorities, including
  1. improving blighted properties
  2. improving low income neighborhoods
  3. restoring/saving historic homes
  4. creating additional rental property

Yet despite the fact that we are accomplishing all of these priorities, the City is unyielding.

We plan, when this project is done, to appeal to the City Council for assistance on fixing this problem. The City of Berkeley, which claims to be a City that does things right, needs to do things right.

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