Architectural, engineering and construction firms have a long history of working with local governments to secure construction approvals and permits. A growing array of zoning districts, codes and restrictions that dictate size, location, use and appearance guide our design and construction work.
History has shown creating these districts and municipal codes were necessary to facilitate smart growth patterns in times of great economic development. But over time what started out as a good intention has instead turned into a cluster of unthinkably complicated bureaucratic rules and regulations that has turned a 30 day “walk in the park” on a sunny day, into a six- to eight-month marathon through dense fog.
What's more, municipalities elect officials and appoint commissioners who in turn hire administrators and engineers who then report back to elected officials and commissioners. Collectively this group determines whether a particular business, building or development has met the ever expanding list of design guidelines, codes and restrictions unique to each municipality. Sound confusing? That's just the Cliff Notes version of the lengthy process owners, developers and their hired professionals go through to develop new construction, remodel or expand.
But thankfully there are a few municipalities that go out of their way to simplify and streamline the approval process because they understand that's how they help to foster economic development. The City of New Berlin, and the Villages of Germantown and Mukwonago take a “get it done,” service-minded approach to architecture and construction. They balance the needs for both smart design and smart growth making it easier for businesses to stay in or re-locate to their communities.
We believe more southeastern Wisconsin municipalities and planning departments should follow the New Berlin, Germantown and Mukwonago examples and reap the benefits of increased economic development. Here's our punch list on how to start:
- Talk to businesses, developers, architects and builders about their experiences with your consulting engineers. Then create a civil engineering approval process that takes weeks not months so that it only costs hundreds, not thousands of dollars.
- Train municipal staff personal on how to promote an attitude of “how can we help get this project done” rather than “how can we create another unnecessary hurdle.”
- For municipalities that require a multitude of review meetings, streamline these meetings into a 30-day window, not a 90-day one.
- Show flexibility with staff review meetings relative to project submittal dates.
- To improve development opportunities within industrial zoning districts, stop requiring businesses to make their industrial buildings look like office or retail buildings. If a business wants to upscale its image through architecture and choice of materials, let it be a choice, not the requirement.
- Become better educated on “green” or “sustainable” design. It's about building efficiency, not high-end architectural design.
With a precarious economic recovery marred by ongoing uncertainty, now is not the time to slow the uptick in commercial and institutional construction that's finally underway.
David C. Miller is president of Anderson Ashton Design Build, a New Berlin-based fully-integrated design/build general contractor.