As Seattle booms, permit backlogs cause headaches for Capitol Hill small business owners

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Permit applicants have to wait weeks to get an initial appointment with the City (Image: DPD)

Notice that your favorite “coming soon” Capitol Hill restaurant or retail project has missed its planned opening by weeks this summer?

Casey Nickole had to wait three months for an appointment to submit her application for building permits to open a new place in South Lake Union. That appointment with the Department of Planning and Development has come and gone, but the owner of the two Bang Salon locations on Capitol Hill says she’s still unsure when she’ll open.

“I cannot get a permit. It’s the most infuriating situation I’ve ever encountered,” she said. “I’m basically paying $2,000 a month on a loan for a business that doesn’t exist.”

While she waits, Nickole said she has $100,000 in outstanding deposits with contractors ready to start work, along with thousands of dollars worth of equipment sitting in storage. Nickole says the new venture will be a different concept than Bang Salon.

Deep permit backlogs have been a fixture at DPD in recent years due to an unprecedented amount of development in the city, a DPD spokesperson told CHS.

Currently, applicants must wait an average of two months to have a meeting just to apply for building permits. After that, it can take up to five months for permits to get processed. Many small businesses on Capitol Hill have delayed openings while waiting.

According to DPD, there are currently around 650 scheduled appointments booked through mid-November 2015. Of those 650, around 70 applications have all their paperwork included.

DPD has increased its staffing in recent year to the pre-recession levels of 2007 — some 80 DPD workers are currently assigned to review various types of construction permits. According to DPD, the agency is on pace to meet its goals for processing simple projects (i.e. small home renovations) and complex projects (i.e. new construction). Due to high demand, DPD is 3-5 days behind in processing permits medium projects (i.e. small tenant improvements).

Business owners can seek the guidance and support of the City’s Office of Economic Development, which has plenty of materials on moving through the permitting process. But eventually, business owners just have to get in line.

Just as many projects, bigger budgets: 2014’s food and drink activity on the Hill kept pace and then some — at least when measured by major construction permits. You’ll see many of the fruits of this labor in 2015 — according to the city, the average Seattle restaurant takes 261 days to open. (Source: data.seattle.gov/Image: CHS)

Just as many projects, bigger budgets: 2014’s food and drink activity on the Hill kept pace and then some — at least when measured by major construction permits. You’ll see many of the fruits of this labor in 2015 — according to the city, the average Seattle restaurant takes 261 days to open. (Source: data.seattle.gov/Image: CHS)

Last year, a multi-agency collective launched an initiative called Restaurant Success partially in response to the long backlogs that can cripple independent owners. The project, intended to guide businesses through the multilayered permitting process, is a private-public partnership between the state, county, city, and Washington Restaurant Association.

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2 thoughts on “As Seattle booms, permit backlogs cause headaches for Capitol Hill small business owners

  1. I don’t know if this has changed but the DPD used to have an antiquated system where if one department found a correction and you had to resubmit it to them for a design change, you had to submit the entire package to all of the departments again and wait for all to sign off again. So, for example, if you had a restroom (on the blueprints) that didn’t have the required space to meet ADA, you had to send it back to the health department, fire department, etc… even if they had signed off already. Maybe they fixed that but any corrections take forever and nobody ever submits a perfect set of plans the first time.

  2. Among 250 major U.S. cities, Seattle is in the top 3% worst for building permit delays (according to UW Prof Theo Eicher). Our city council sits on its hands, preferring to request that the state legislature allow it to price-control rents. Because, what could it have to do with soaring rents, if our building permit process delays investment in new projects when we have a housing shortage?