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New online tool to improve exasperating permit process

The mayor aims to make it easier to work with City Hall.

After years of complaints, the Walsh administration is promising to improve a notoriously painful city process: getting a permit.

City Hall will launch a permitting website next month, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday, making it easier for residents and businesses to win permission for renovations and other projects.

Walsh announced the website in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

The new system is a welcome step for homeowners and small-business owners, who have long griped that the city’s approval process — even for such seemingly simple jobs as adding a deck in the back yard — is confusing, maddeningly slow, and scattered among umpteen agencies.

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“It will make permitting quicker and easier,” Walsh told business leaders Thursday. “At long last, Boston has a modern, online permitting experience . . . that supports new ideas rather than pushing them away.”

Officials said the initiative is part of a broader push by the Walsh administration to make it easier for residents and companies to do business with City Hall.

Last year, for example, the city set up a separate panel to approve minor zoning variances, so homeowners and small-business owners would not have to wait in line behind major developers. More recently, Boston debuted a site at which residents can get moving van parking permits online instead of waiting in line at City Hall.

The new permitting website will allow users to apply online for six basic construction permits from the Inspectional Services Department, and for fire-suppression system permits from the Fire Department, officials said.

Users will be able to track the status of each permit needed by a project on a single page, which will also display contact information for the city employee who is responsible for approving it.

One neighborhood business leader described the existing permitting system as frustrating to use, requiring applicants to navigate a series of pages with contradictory information and links that lead users in circles.

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“It was like chutes and ladders,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, which represents businesses in the neighborhood. “You’d think you were at the top with your final approval, but — oh no! — now you have to slide down to this other agency for approval of what had already been approved by another part of city government. It was this endless, through-the-looking-glass situation.”

City officials expect to upgrade the website continually and said it will eventually include permits from other agencies and a questionnaire to help users figure out which permits they need for a given project.

Officials stressed that they were careful to preserve necessary safety checks even as they streamlined the permitting process. But they were blunt in assessing the old permitting website.

“It was slow and confusing,” said the city’s deputy chief information officer, Matt Mayrl , who helped build the new website. “We had a Web platform that was supposed to be a convenience, but was actually driving people to come in and wait in line.”

The website will work on mobile devices, which Mayrl said is important because some lower-income residents have smartphones but no computer or home Internet service.

Mainzer-Cohen predicted the city will also benefit from a more efficient permitting system. “It’s not just the transparency and the tracking; the technology will help the city identify where the pinch points are, and then they can send more resources into those departments,” she said.

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Officials said further improvements for small businesses in Boston are imminent.

A key part of that effort will be a comprehensive plan for small businesses, which is being prepared for the city by Roxbury-based Next Street Financial LLC and is expected to be unveiled this year.

In addition to recommending further streamlining of the permitting process, officials said, the plan will probably include recommendations on how the city can help small businesses find affordable commercial space and financing.


Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.