Ann Arbor’s construction boom: Demand prompts city to hire more development inspectors

Ann Arbor is in the midst of a construction boom, plain and simple.

And city officials are responding to the demand with plans of hiring a new building inspector and a new plumbing inspector within the next couple of weeks.

“It’s evidence of the rebounding Ann Arbor economy — large projects, as well as homeowner projects,” said City Administrator Steve Powers.

With a number of new luxury apartment high-rises going up downtown, and new homes and renovations under way, the city’s building department has seen an increased workload. There also are a number of commercial projects under way.

“We were monitoring the performance of our building inspection department for a period of time and the inspection wait had become unacceptable to our customers,” Powers said. “We were one to three weeks out, overtime was being used, and we still weren’t able to put a significant dent in the length of time for inspections and plan reviews.”

Powers said the city looked at alternatives such as contracting out the work, but city officials don’t see building activity slowing down, so hiring more inspectors makes sense.

Steve_Powers_headshot_July_12_2011_b.jpgSteve Powers

Ralph Welton, the city’s chief development official, said the two newest hires will bring his construction inspections staff up from eight to 10 full-time employees, which includes mechanical, electrical, plumbing and building inspectors.Rental housing inspections and fire inspections are handled through separate city departments.

Welton said he’s cautiously optimistic the increased development activity in Ann Arbor isn’t stopping anytime soon.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t just spiking, but we’re not — this is a steady climb that’s been going on for over a year now,” he said.

In addition to residential high-rises like The VarsityZaragon West,Landmark and Ann Arbor City Apartments — projects that are bringing literally thousands of new bedrooms to downtown right now — other big projects are driving the need for more inspectors.

That includes projects like Arbor Hills Crossing, a new shopping center under way on Washtenaw Avenue, and the pending demolition and redevelopment of the Georgetown Mall site on Packard Road for a new mixed-use project called Packard Square.

The developer of the former mall site plans to construct a four-story, mixed-use building containing 230 apartment units and 23,790 square feet of retail space.

The City Council most recently approved the 618 South Main apartments projects, which promises 231 more bedrooms on South Main Street. City officials also are expecting to see movement soon on the Near North affordable housing project near Main and Summit.

A prime piece of downtown real estate next to Sloan Plaza at 413 E. Huron St. also sold recently and there are talks of another high-rise being developed there.

But it’s not just housing that’s booming, said Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager. She pointed to a number of other commercial and office construction projects under way.

That includes the Hilton Garden Inn and Townplace Suites on Briarwood Circle, the AAA Branch Office on South Main, Tim Horton’s on Ellsworth, an addition to Allen Creek Preschool on Miller, the Zahn medical office on Jackson, and the Zingerman’s Deli expansion downtown.

Welton said some of the projects on the city’s plate right now are “pretty big deals.” To put matters into perspective, he noted a mere two permits at the Landmark apartments project near South University have required more than 1,100 inspections to date.

Welton said he’s encouraged by an increase in residential permits, including a substantial amount of additions and remodeling work being done in the city. He said there also have been about three to five new home starts each month in Ann Arbor.

“The thing that impresses us the most is the residential work is really on the rise — a lot of high-end additions and remodels and several new home starts,” he said.

Powers and Welton both noted the building inspectors are funded by fees generated by building activity, so there’s no general fund dollars used to hire the new inspectors.

“Our fund balance is large enough right now that we can afford to do this, so there’s no change in fees,” Welton added, estimating there’s about $1.5 million available in cash reserves. He said the new inspectors will start at about $51,000 a year plus benefits.

Hiring new employees is somewhat of a rare move for the city, which adopted the philosophy of simply paying extra overtime to meet increased workload demands in other departments.

As the city has scaled back its work force over the last decade — once above 1,000 employees and now under 700 — many of those left on the job are working extra hours.

Records show the city paid out $31,560 in overtime to building department employees last year, but that’s a small fraction of the $3.3 million it paid out in total overtime.

The city’s planning and development services unit has a budget for fiscal year 2012-13 that includes $3,638,178 in revenue and $3,732,141 in expenses.

The budget approved in May shows 21.59 full-time employees, which is down from 34 FTEs in 2009-10, but that’s not all in Welton’s department.

The planning and development services unit handles rental housing inspections, construction inspections and permits. It also provides enforcement for building, housing and sign codes.

The unit’s stated goals for the coming fiscal year include equipping inspectors with mobile technologies, establishing an administrative hearings bureau, instituting digital plan reviews and updating the city’s housing code by Dec. 31.

The city also wants to digitize archived records for buildings, housing and planning, and switch to electronic paperless intake of construction permit applications.

Rampson said adding building staff could have the potential to shift some sign permit review and enforcement duties from a city planner to one or more of the development inspectors.

She said planners still would be involved in updating the sign ordinance and staffing the appeals board, but the day-to-day activities would be handled by a development inspector.

Originally posted by Ryan J. Stanton on