The City of Lakeland’s Design Review board streamlines its process

When Tony Delgado became Lakeland’s city manager in January, he knew there was a notion among some that it’s hard to do business with the city. It’s a notion that doesn’t fit with Delgado’s drive to create a “customer-centric” culture. So Delgado and his Community Development Director Jim Studiale are tweaking a process that itself was considered a reform to speed up new projects when it was implemented 10 years ago.

That process is called Design Review. The idea is simple: Put someone who wants to build or renovate at a table with eight to 10 city department representatives to review the plans. It will keep applicants from having to schedule endless meetings and allow all questions to be answered at once.

Over the years, a new step called “concept review” was added. Here business owners present a broad outline of the early stages of their idea, before spending money on formal architectural or engineering plans. The idea is that the city staff can prepare them for any obstacles they should plan for, such as an expensive sprinkler system or wastewater needs.

Still it is a complicated process. “Tony and I have recognized that more and more people at the table are providing boilerplate comments and they’re not solving (problems) at the first meeting,” Studiale said. As a result of more time and more meetings, the city government gets a reputation as the cause of costly delays.

So, Delgado has brought a two-prong solution:

• Bring in a quarterback who will act as an advocate. Delgado is placing Transportation Planner Chuck Barmby in charge of the Design Review Team (DTR) as a “non-threatening expert on viewing the big picture.”

• Adopt a broader view. Insist team members take a holistic view of projects to take them outside their own silos. Clarify that they have the authority to make decisions at meetings without delaying to ask higher-ups. “They need to know if they make a mistake, nobody’s going to chop their head off,” Studiale said.

Without such a DTR process, things can move much slower.
Projects that have gone the smoothest are when the business owner conferred with city staff, even before going through concept review, such as Brew Hub, My Office and More, and Posto 9 Brazilian Gastropub.

Brew Hub CEO Tim Schoen said he felt welcome by both the Lakeland Economic Development Council and people at City Hall when he was scouting sites a few years ago.

Shoen said the permit process in Lakeland took about four months, compared with the more than 18 months he has spent seeking permits for a second plant near St. Louis. A key ingredient was working with local firms such as Wallis Murphey Boyington Architects and Marcobay Construction who are familiar with the city’s design process.

It’s not necessary to start your project with architects, engineers, or builders who know their way around City Hall, but it can speed things up.

“The locals know the process,” Delgado said. “We want to be able to facilitate the development teams to say, ‘I know your process; I know what we need to bring to the table; I know what the rules and regulations are.” The result of design review should be a city with attractive and safe buildings.


My Office and More founder Kate Lake said she benefited from working with local architect Marlon Lynn and contractor Ed Forgue. Out-of-town professionals “don’t have the relationships,” says Lake. “They might not realize the city might have some areas of code that are more stringent. It comes down to information and relationships. Make sure you ask a lot of questions before you get into it.”


A business owner is required to go through design review before pulling a permit to build a commercial property, home, or subdivision, or renovate a building in a way that changes its use or 50 percent of the structure.

The cost for concept review is $230, which is deducted from the separate fee owners pay later at the time of design review: $500 for projects less than an acre, $980 up to five acres, or $980 plus $25 per acre for large projects. There is no concept
review fee for projects applying for zoning or conditional use changes.

To encourage developers to submit complete plans, the city allows one resubmission of the site plan but then charges $500 for additional submissions.

The DRT typically meets every two weeks in the Building Inspection conference room on the first floor of City Hall, and the prepared agenda allows an average of 20 minutes per applicant. The two-page application for concept review includes a five-page list of the development standards the various departments will review.