On paper, the not-for-profit agency's modest plan looked like a no-brainer: The center would move from the aging, cavernous former Sacred Heart School on Gaywood Drive it had occupied since 1999 into the adjacent building at 1015 E. Maple Grove Ave. that once housed the church's nuns. A small building to the rear of the convent would be replaced by a 1,400-square-foot addition, and the $190,000 expense would be covered through donations and an annual $20,000 reduction in operating expenses.
So center officials got a building permit in August and construction began – until inspectors shut down the project the next day, beginning a series of annoyances big and small that has only recently been overcome.
“I thought, 'Are you kidding me? It's been very frustrating, but not with any single individual,' ” said Tony Ley, executive director.
Although the former convent had served a residential purpose and the property was zoned for that use, building inspectors concluded the center would use the building for commercial purposes, requiring approval from the state, the city Board of Zoning and other agencies – a process that took several weeks.
Those delays were costly, Ley said, because continuing to operate in the old school did more than cost the agency $2,500 per month: It also concerned donors who wondered why nothing was happening.
And that was just the beginning.
Because the center had been using a three-section sink someone had donated, the Board of Health decided the new addition would need a grease trap and man-hole access to the sewer – something that could cost up to $12,000, Ley said.
Then, adding injury to insult, officials decided the center would have to dig a pond to collect storm water from the site before discharging it, slowly, into the sewers. Another $20,000 or so, Ley said.
“I'm pulling my hair out,” Ley said. “I'm thinking, 'I'm going to fight this. Surely Common sense will prevail. But it's costing us hundreds of dollars a day. This was nonsense to me.”
The good news is that sanity prevailed and construction resumed earlier this month, apparently clearing the way for completion in March – about four months behind schedule. The BZA approved the project, the Board of Health relented on the manhole and instead of a costly pond Ley designed a less expensive above-ground system to retain and slowly discharge storm water. And the 80,000 or so people who rely on the center for food, toiletries, sack lunches and other assistance every year can get help in better surroundings without having to trudge up and down stairs.
But what happened to that $1.4 million? What about the “ombudsman” hired to help applicants navigate the bureaucratic maze?
“I didn't even know he existed (until late in the process),” Ley said.
And Craig Yoder, hired as ombudsman last August – about the time the center received then lost its first permit – wasn't aware of Ley, either, until he had already overcome most of the center's problems.
“But I have a background in construction,” Ley said. “What would somebody else have done?” Would they have spent thousands of dollars unnecessarily? Or would they have simply abandoned the project?
To Yoder, Ley's bureaucratic odyssey exposes a question still to be resolved: Should he become involved early in the process, helping applicants to avoid problems? Or should be become involved only if problems arise later?
The answer is obvious: Applicants should be told about the ombudsman program from the start. After all, Yoder and Ley are not mind readers
But neither are public officials, and the center's initial application was vague both about the project's purpose and the entity proposing it. People seeking permits have as obligation to learn and follow the law – and so do the architects, contractors and other professionals helping them who should already know the procedures but don't always follow them.
Ley, who has seen three shootings out his window since March, marvels at the thought that the center's vision could have been scuttled by regulations supposedly intended to help people.
All's well that ends well, I suppose, but there was room for improvement on both sides. Far more improvement is required to justify spending $1.4 million.