Public Comment

Turning to the White House for Help With a Berkeley Permit Problem

By Hoda A. Cox 
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:48:00 AM

Today, at the end of my rope, I wrote President Obama the attached letter.  

Failing to get any response from the Berkeley City Attorney, the City Manager, two senators and the Governor—yes, I emailed them this story—I had to turn to the White House! 

A sad state of affairs if that is your last resort! It says a lot about whether cities and government officials are taking to heart the President’s call to expedite, aid, and abridge red tape to help people who have lost their jobs get back on their feet. 

I am now also turning to the media. I need someone to help me, to shine a light on the ways our officials delay, deter and discourage new businesses. 

Dear President Obama, 

It is with great sadness that I find I have to resort to writing your office about my situation. After 15 years of service with AT&T I was suddenly laid off in June. I received a severance package that would pay my expenses for eight to nine months if spent with care. I have a 14 year old in junior high school and a daughter at UC Berkeley. 

In April my daughter pleaded with me to look at a recently vacated space across from the university. I have catered parties and events on the side for many years, and love cooking. Knowing I couldn’t leave my job, I explored the space just for fun, thinking how perfect it would be for a small to-go café … a lifelong dream. 

The landlord wanted too much, so I backed off. Two weeks later he called. He said that since he loved my menu and concept he’d accept my offer. I thought my sister-in-law could run the place. So in mid-June we signed the lease—just a few days before I got the call about losing my job! Providence, I think. 

I am a single mom, so I had to expedite what I needed to do to get the café going. I taught myself how to draw plans—couldn’t afford an architect—tried to show electrical upgrades needed, researched equipment I needed and bought much of it used. I learned what the plumbing upgrades and floor needed, etc. With only $45,000 ($30,000 from investors) to spend, it was a challenge to find people who might work for less pay per hour. 

Since then I have been going through the very lengthy, un-user friendly, complex process of getting my permits so I can begin upgrading the space. Naively, I was hoping to open when the kids returned from summer break—beginning of September, but that was not to be. 

I spent over 100 hours drawing floor plans, electrical plans and plumbing plans in Excel, and talking with anyone who was willing from the city planning department to ensure I am addressing code requirements. The Health Inspector was wonderful and visited the empty space twice to help in light of my financial situation. Finally, the first week of October I received approvals to move ahead from the fire, health, public works departmenst and the landmarks committee. 

On the last day he had to respond, Mr. Jeff Thomas, the Sr. Building and Safety Engineer talked to me on the phone to clarify why my plans weren’t up to par. He sent me a long list of changes, including page numbering and a couple of questions that did not pertain to my to-go café. I dissolved into tears from the stress of thinking that now I had to redo the plans and wait two more weeks for a response. 

I submitted the changes. He had 10 days to respond, and he took the whole 10 days. 

He wasn’t pleased that I hadn’t hired an architect to do the drawings. Given my budget how can I afford a $150 an hour architect, I asked? He responded that since I’m allegedly losing $400 a day by not being open, maybe it was a mistake not to have hired one! How does my loss of income increase my current budget? I was very upset by his remark. And yet, others in the department complimented me on such well rawn documents! 

I was very anxious that I would now lose another two weeks. Again Mr. Thomas called the last day, and said certain things were missing—some of which were actually in the plans. It was clear to me that he had barely scanned them before calling me. 

Very jarred, I scrambled for three days to gather answers to his requests, consulting an architect who works for my boyfriend’s boss, a contractor friend of his and a friend who runs a pizza chain. I requested a face-to-face meeting on Nov.3 to make sure I had everything Mr. Thomas wanted. He asked for drawings to demonstrate how I would spend 20 percent of my budget on ADA improvements. Dazed that I had to find another $5000 to spend, I almost said “forget it.” I found ADA entrance and bathroom requirements and drew them. Mr. Thomas said to make an appointment with him in a couple of days, and he’d try to turn the docs around in three days. 

I called to make an appointment on Nov. 5, but he said he didn’t have time to meet with me! So just drop them off per the usual process. I couldn’t just drop them off, I had to make an appointment for the next day, Friday, Nov. 6. I was crestfallen. On Tues., Nov. 10, Mr. Thomas said he’d retrieved my plans and would ‘try’ to look at them in the next couple of days. I left voicemails two days in a row. On Thurs. Nov. 19, he called and said to stand by my phone all day in case he had questions, and that he’d try to approve that afternoon or Friday at the latest. I believed him. I modified my plans to stay in an area with good cell phone reception. He said he’d call me back that evening either way. He did not call. On Friday, no word, no email. 

Today, Monday, Nov. 16, he wrote that he was going to look at them. I didn’t expect him to follow up, because it is very clear to me, my family, friends and partners tracking this insane, business-unfriendly process that Mr. Thomas intends to drag out the full two weeks he has a second time. He is not interested in helping me at all. 

So here I am…it is Nov. 16 and I am still not able to even begin the work needed to open the café! I hired our employees in August/September when I thought all this could be done in 60 to 90 days. I have lost two of them. I have had a plumber, electrician and flooring person standing by for weeks! 

I am now paying rent, and my personal money is dwindling. I have lost another five days. It will take two weeks to do the work, then I have to pass inspections, another week. Then we install and test the equipment—four to five days. Even if Mr. Thomas were to get back to me tomorrow, the earliest I can open my doors will be Dec. 14! Students leave for Christmas one week later, and don’t return until Jan. 10! I am sunk!  

I believe that you, Sir, have asked banks, officials and cities to help people get back on their feet, to expedite small business owners to open their shops, and skip “red tape” when possible. I don’t know that people feel the urgency of your call. It is infinitely clear that city officials happily hide behind inflexible “rules” so they don’t have to evoke their humanity and compassion. 

For example, Mr. Thomas didn’t want to do a simple calculation to determine the space’s Occupancy Load—I had no idea what that was—but he was willing to tell me where to go find the formula! It took me an hour to do what he could have done in two minutes! He had all the information needed. 

Is this America heading for Change? Is this America trying help people help themselves? I am devastated and am considering giving up on my dream. The stress is making me ill.  

I am at my wits end. I have lost $400 a day since Nov. 1st thanks to Mr. Thomas alone. I will make $0 this year. 

Who in the world do I have to turn to? Neither the Governor, nor the city manager responded to my plea for help. There is no one looking out for us.