Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Day 80 - Obtaining a Building Permit

I have never obtained a building permit. Sure, this "I have never..." event isn't the most exciting to date, but getting a building permit from the city of Madison has been something I have been putting off for some time. With the concrete stoop on the front of my house cracked and crumbling, I needed to put together a plan to replace it. Of course, this meant I needed city approval to act on the project, which set into motion my first experience with the city permitting process. While I wouldn't normally put something so simple on my "I have never..." list, I have heard working with the local government is always a unique experience. As such, I headed to the local municipal building this morning to obtain my first building permit. Although the process wasn't as cumbersome as I had feared, the experience was something to remember.

The Municipal Building
My trip to the municipal building this morning was rather uneventful. I had to battle morning traffic briefly and maneuver around the farmer's market on a closed street directly in front of the municipal building, but otherwise the journey was easy and short. With my car parked, I fed the parking meter and began the walk toward the municipal building. As I approached, I looked over the massive grey stone building, which had very little activity on its grounds despite the busy farmer's market happening on the street in front of the complex. The plain exterior and thick walls of the building made it appear as a fortress among the businesses and high rises of downtown. Undeterred by the vacant, looming presence of the building, I climbed the two sets of stairs before the front door and entered the municipal building.

You know, it has a modern, contemporary feel
Once inside, I immediately noticed the dated interior of the building. Drop tile ceilings wound their way through the building along plain white walls sparsely populated with pictures and art. A black plastic baseboard running along the bottom of the walls met a black plastic material similar to a bathtub grip mat that covered the floors. It felt as though the entire building had been stuck in an office building time warp somewhere between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. It was strange to see the aged interior, but I can't say it was altogether shocking given the building's use as a local government facility. After a brief pause to take in the scenery I took a few steps into the building and looked around. Eventually, my eyes caught the view of a small sign tacked to a pillar in the center of the lobby. The sign indicated the city permitting office was located in the lower level of the building and presented a large arrow pointing left. I took one last look at the paperwork I had brought to confirm I had my building plans before I followed the signs directions and walked down the hallway on my left. A few minutes later, I descended a stairway and walked back toward the center of the building until I met a pair of double doors with "City of Madison Permitting" printed across them.

Continuing, I entered the doorway into an office space containing cubicles and employees that maintained the earlier late 1980s/early 1990s building motif. Upon entering the space, a woman wearing a brightly colored blouse with a Southwestern print on it greeted me. I explained my purpose for being in the office, which prompted her to quickly direct me to a nearby counter littered with old comic strips tucked beneath a large glass countertop. Behind the counter stood a man wearing pleated khakis and a button down shirt that appeared to be from the 1993 L.L. Bean catalogue. With one person ahead of me in line, I took time to wrap my head around my surroundings. The apparent 20 year gap between the municipal building and the rest of the world absorbed every bit of my attention. So much so that I nearly missed the man behind the counter calling me forward. Still working to take in every bit of my surroundings, I approached the desk and handed him my building plans. He quickly set to work without a word, reviewing the documents and typing on his keyboard. Over the next few minutes, he asked me some brief questions about the project and reviewed the plan a few more times. Then, he gave a firm click on his mouse, turned around to grab something off of a printer, and slid a building permit across the counter.

Permit in hand!
"That one's $25," the man said pointing to the permit. In turn, I quickly filled out a check and handed it to him. "Alright, you're all set," the man continued as he stared at me from behind the counter. Grabbing my papers, I thanked him for his help and started to head for the door. As I walked away the man spoke once more. "Put that in a window where it's visible. Otherwise you can get ticketed."I turned back and nodded in understanding before thanking him once more. In response, the man remained silent and looked at his computer screen. Realizing the awkward interaction was not likely to end normally, I turned back to the door and proceeded to the first floor of the building. Minutes later I was back outside and entering my vehicle to make the quick trip home before starting my workday.

Upon arriving home, I immediately posted the building permit in my front window as instructed. Although my project won't occur for some time, I figured putting the permit up now would be the safest route to ensuring I didn't lose it somewhere between now and then. With that, my first experience obtaining a building permit was over. Although I expected the events to be one to remember, the finer details of the building, the employees, and the interaction were surprising gems in my first experience with the municipality of Madison. I'm not sure how or why the municipal building and its employees maintain such a consistent theme in their building, but I'm glad they do. If they didn't, my experience obtaining a building permit would have been a drab, unremarkable event. Instead, I gained a curious and awkward experience that made for a nice little story. For that, I have to thank the city of Madison and their unique blend of interior design and city staff.

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