Changes in DSG, Lancaster named new director

There’s a new department head over at city hall, but don’t get him confused with the city manager.

Steve Lancaster, the new director of the Development Services Group, or DSG, is nearly an identical twin with city manager Rich Conrad.

After Conrad introduced Lancaster to the City Council last Monday, he joked about how the man had just the right hair color and stature for the job — and that Lancaster could fill in for Conrad when he is unable to make a meeting.

But beyond the jokes, Conrad said he is confident Lancaster will succeed in overseeing an increasingly busy department that has had staffing issues and trouble interpreting codes consistently in recent years.

“We’re excited to have him here with us,” Conrad told the Council last Monday. “He brings to the city a wealth of experience in urban planning.”

Lancaster has had considerable experience in land use development in the Puget Sound region and is looking forward to the tasks ahead of him.

“My first interest is that development be respectful for the place it occurs and for the setting that it’s in,” Lancaster said. “My first priority is to make sure that developers are receptive to the community’s values. The community here is respectful to the natural environment and the natural setting that it has here is something that is a great interest to me.”

While he spent 12 years in Tukwila as an urban planner and the director of its Department of Community Development, Lancaster said his favorite accomplishments had to do with neighborhoods.

“Some of the things that I am most proud of in Tukwila were working in neighborhoods,” Lancaster said. “Tukwila went through some serious annexations just before I began there, and some of the neighborhoods were on septic systems, had poor drainage or no sidewalks. I really enjoyed helping the neighborhoods decide what they wanted for their future and working with parks department and city council to get the infrastructure built.”

Lancaster said the job on Mercer Island attracted him because the Island is primarily residential. Tukwila is quite different, home to approximately 40,000 jobs and only 17,000 residents. He said most of the permit work in Tukwila dealt with commercial and industrial development, and he is looking forward to working for a city with a lot of residential reconstruction.

He also said he liked what he has seen of the development in Town Center.

“I think that the work that has been started in the Town Center is interesting and exciting. It’s very different than what I have come from in Tukwila. I think that is a very appropriate difference, and I’m interested in doing what I can to help that develop and mature to be something that is a real asset to the community.”

“It’s all a matter of balance. There has to be a very direct relationship between the impact that a specific project is creating and what you ask of them in terms of offsetting that impact. It’s a scale issue, is what’s being asked of new development — scale with what it’s actually contributing to and impacting.”

Lancaster said he chose the job because the Island is a unique city with a “fantastic” natural setting.

According to Lancaster’s former deputy director in Tukwila, Jack Pace, as many as 100,000 people will visit the Southcenter area over a given weekend.

“When people ask how many people live in Tukwila, we usually ask, ‘At what time of day?’” Pace said.

Lancaster headed the Department of Community Development for Tukwila for a dozen years, gaining experience working with Sound Transit, numerous local developers and retail stores ranging from coffee stands to “big box” stores such as Target.

“He has experience on a variety of issues from the regional light rail to local major redevelopment like the Southcenter expansion,” Pace said of his colleague. “He always worked in an efficient and effective manner, and his leadership support and coordination will be missed.”

Some notable projects that occurred in Lancaster’s tenure in Tukwila include the construction of the Starfire Sports Complex, the Sound Transit Link Light Rail and a major redevelopment of the Westfield Shopping Town at Southcenter.

Starfire was a unique public-private partnership in which the city of Tukwila gave up the aging and decrepit Fort Dent park in exchange for a new soccer complex, complete with a stadium, indoor facility and several fields. The Seattle Sounders use the facility for practice and some exhibition games.

Lancaster has two grown children and has been married for 34 years. He and his wife share a passion for traveling, he said, and they enjoy camping, fishing and hiking. He obtained his undergraduate degree in urban and regional planning from Western Washington University and earned a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Oregon.

In addition to hiring a new director, the city is implementing some new policies within the Department of Development Services (DSG) to improve the permit process.

There are now established over-the-counter permit hours for small projects that require less than a half hour of a plan reviewer’s time, such as simple repairs or a deck. An employee will be present from 3 to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The city is making changes in response to a departmental review completed in 2006.

Complaints were made by customers who went to city hall for a permit, yet nobody was there to help. Some said they were turned away and asked to come back.

The city also combined some utility permits. Plumbing, mechanical and electrical work on single family homes is now available in one permit, the Combo Permit. This went into effect in January.

The scope of the Design Commission’s role is also mentioned in the department’s review. However, a recommendation to clarify city codes did not get into the current amendments under consideration by Council. According to the review, DSG began making administrative decisions for minor project changes.

“The former DSG director ceased taking minor design applications (e.g. signs, paint color) to the Design Commission and issued an administrative decision in connection with such minor exterior revision. However, there is ambiguity between [two city codes].”

The review suggested Council approve a code amendment to clarify the ambiguity. Deputy city manager Londi Lindell said the Council did not direct city staff to insert this into the current code text amendments.

“They did express that it was a good idea,” Lindell said. “But there were other issues that made the code text amendments for 2007. We are still handling minor modifications administratively.”

Last fall, Council approved to increase the number of staff in the department. Another issue the study found was that DSG lacked consistent code interpretations related to a high turnover rate.

“We were told by the majority of applicants that during their permit review process, they received conflicting information, incorrect information or inconsistent code interpretations. For example, one applicant described being directed by staff to design a stairway system in a certain way and then another city staff person reversed this earlier interpretation of the building code,” the review reads.

The review recommended upholding reasonable opined code interpretations unless there is a threat to public health, safety and welfare. It also recommended weekly coordination meetings among the building inspector and building official team to review code interpretations.

Currently, planning, engineering and the building officials meet with the DSG director and the city attorney twice a month to discuss interpretations and consistency. City planners and inspectors also hold regular meetings to discuss code interpretations. The review suggested both groups meet as well to share their discussions.

The ability to retain praised employees was another problem for the department, the review stated.

“We were told to do everything possible to retain the praised employees,” the review stated.

While the city’s overall turnover rate averages between 8 and 9 percent each year, DSG averaged a 29.5 percent turnover from 2001 to 2006. After losing about half its staff last year, the department has already had a 15 percent turnover in 2007 and is still looking for a new building plans examiner.

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