The Planning Department in Chester, PA, was spending two hours every day researching questions about permissible uses from homeowners and business developers
Staff had to dig through paper files to check on the status of ongoing construction projects because building permits were housed in a separate database
With BuildingBlocks, department staff now have instant access to zoning data and permissible uses tied directly to every parcel in the City through a digital mapping tool
Chester, PA, was incorporated in 1682, making it Pennsylvania’s oldest city and the only city in Delaware County. Located on the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia, it has a rich history as a manufacturing hub: during the late fifties and sixties, Chester was home to a Ford Motor Co. plant, Reynolds Metals, and Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. Since the middle of the 20th century, Chester has been hit hard with industrial decline & population loss, and the once-bustling waterfront fell vacant. In 1995, Chester entered Act 47, the state’s program for financially distressed municipalities. The past few years have seen signs of recovery, with major developments like a casino and a soccer stadium anchoring revitalization efforts, and but tight budgets remain a reality for the local government.
The resource-strapped Planning Department spent hours each week researching questions from developers & residents on potential projects
Peter Rykard took the reins of the Chester Planning Department in 2016, and he has been on a mission to ensure his team is responsive to the needs of citizens and businesses looking to invest in Chester’s revitalization. But with limited resources at his disposal, his Department would spend hours answering inquiries about home improvements, new development, or commercial projects. When someone called in with a question about potential construction, his team members would have to reference paper zoning maps to answer basic questions, eating up hours of staff time every week. And when his department issued zoning permits, they would remain in the dark as to the project status because the certificates of occupancy were tracked in a different system managed by the Building Officials. His staff would have to physically go to a different office to pull a record and confirm that the issued permit resulted in a finished project. “It was a real drag on our productivity. The last thing I want to do is stand in the way of any project because we can’t get the answers people need in a timely manner,” noted Rykard.
The City estimates that is saves hundreds of hours every year, and is able to provide answers in seconds to potential developers
Chester partnered with Tolemi to deploy BuildingBlocks as a joint initiative among the Planning, Economic Development, Police, and Health departments to consolidate and share data into a single analytical tool. In addition to integrating records from these siloed systems, the Tolemi team digitized a number of paper maps & overlays, giving Peter’s team a valuable resource to cross-reference permissible uses and run queries based on land use. “My staff used to have to come into my office to look at a big paper map on the wall every time they got a question about a zoning issue,” Rykard says. “Now they have the answer in seconds with BuildingBlocks.” With dozens of calls per week, he estimates that his Department saves hundreds of hours per year. And now his staff can not only respond to inquiries immediately, but they are also able to suggest other sites that would be appropriate for the kind of development a requester has specified. What’s more, with real-time access to the status of building permits, they can follow projects that required rezoning through to their finish, and identify those that haven’t yet received a certificate of occupancy. “It all comes together in BuildingBlocks,” effused Rykard. “All of our other departments see the value in sharing and mapping data from these different systems. They are lining up to get access to the tool.”