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Monday, October 19, 2009

Melissa Dunphy's Guide to obtaining a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy in Philadelphia 2009

So, you've found a nice unoccupied or unlicensed venue and you want to hold a Fringe (or other) event there.

This is a guide based on my experiences acquiring a TCO. Hopefully some of this information will help you. Please note: if it doesn't, I can't be held liable. I'm not a lawyer, and this document does not constitute legal advice.

STEP 1: Contact the owner of the venue.
STEP 2: Temporary Certificate of Occupancy form and instructions
STEP 3: Architectural drawings
STEP 4: Get to know your friendly Licenses and Inspections local office
STEP 5: File the TCO
STEP 6: Meanwhile - what to get done before inspection
STEP 7: Inspection

STEP 1: Contact the owner of the venue.
This may seem very obvious, but in case it isn't, approach the owner of the venue before you do anything. Their approval is necessary, and they may even be able to help you with other parts of this process. Find out from them if you can use the venue for free, or negotiate a price for renting the venue. Ask the owner if they have a fire alarm system in operation, and if they do, see if you can get a copy of certification for it. [top]

STEP 2: Download/Print the Temporary Certificate of Occupancy form and instructions
  1. The Temporary Certificate of Occupancy form is actually just a Building Permit Application form

  2. Read and know the instructions forward and backwards. They give you a very good idea of what is going to be required of you. Note that you can occupy the building for 15 days. This technically includes rehearsals. List every time and date you are using the building within these 15 days (i.e. don't just say your event is from "May 10-17." List each day separately with the event/rehearsal time.)

  3. It might also be useful to look at this Building Permit Checklist, though note that not all of it will pertain to your application

The TCO application will cost $250 to file. Don't file it quite yet - you have a lot to get through first.

Pro-Tip: if you are applying for a TCO for the Rotunda, the legal address is 4008-26 Walnut Street, not 4014.

Under "BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF WORK" on the application form, describe your event in about four words, and use the rest of the space to list dates and times and detail how you plan to fulfill the requirements listed in the instructions - go through point-by-point. For example: "All policies on Variance of General Application B-0923-05 shall be complied with. Maximum occupant load for rehearsals is 50. Maximum occupant load for performances is 350. Entrances and three exits shown on plan. Exits will be announced before each event. Illuminated exit signs and emergency lighting to be installed. Six (6) fire watch members will be present at each event and intructed on how to activate manual fire alarm system. Set dressing will be flame resistant. Toilet facilities on premises are adequate and market on plan. Disabled access to the building is provided and marked on plan." [top]

STEP 3: Acquire architectural drawings of the space for the TCO application
First, ask the owner if they have CAD or PDF blueprints of the space as it is. Having these will make your architect's job much easier and save you time and money. If a TCO application has been filed before for the space, ask if the owner has copies of previous plans so you can see what went into them. If you can get copies or take pictures of these, you can give them to your architect to help with her/his plans. The more material, the better.

If you know that the space has been used before for a LiveArts show, it's worth asking the Live Arts office (Carolyn Schlecker) if you can take a look at the TCO application and associated plans for that show, since they keep them all on file.

Now it's time to find your own architect.

Warning: architects are expensive. Seriously, I almost used a blink tag. You will need a licensed architect, as the drawings must be stamped with the architect's professional seal. The architect for the LiveArts Festival does not donate or reduce the price of his services to Fringe shows, and he quoted me over $1,200 for a TCO application. Look around for recommendations from friends and colleagues or ask local colleges to recommend recent graduates, and hopefully you'll find someone who can give you a good price.

Recommended architect:
Jeff Goldstein, DIGSAU
340 N. 12th Street, Suite 421, Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 627-0808 x102
Jeff was our architect for the Gonzales Cantata TCO application. He was an absolute pleasure to deal with, very professional, fast, reasonably priced, and his drawings received unsolicited compliments from the L&I inspector.

If you couldn't get CAD drawings from the owner of the venue, your architect will need to survey the space and create them from scratch.

Discuss with your architect what, if any, changes are being made to the space for the event, as all these will need to be put into the plans for your application. This will include marking on the plans which areas will be used by performers, which areas will be used by the audience, any seating structures, any set structures, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The more information you can give the architect at the start, the less time it will take them to create your drawings and the less money it will cost you. Here's what I gave my architect:
  1. A copy of the Temporary Certificate of Occupancy form (see above)
  2. Instructions for filing a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy (see above)
  3. Photographs of the space, particularly of any areas I wanted to alter for the event
  4. A mock-up of the complete building plan including markings for set and audience seating, drawn as near as possible to scale

If you're handy with Photoshop, definitely give the architect a mock-up as in number 4 above; if you aren't handy in Photoshop, at least draw it by hand and include measurements so the architect has a good idea of what you want.

Once you have the plans for your space, print out at least eight copies of the plans. Yes, eight: six for the permit application, one for you, and one for the venue owner. You'll need to go to Kinko's or somewhere similar, because the minimum size for plans is 18" by 24", and I'm betting your home printer can't handle that paper size. [top]

STEP 4: Get to know your friendly Licenses and Inspections local office
There are 5 district offices of Licenses and Inspections. One of these offices will be handling the inspection related to your application, so contacting them early isn't a bad idea to develop a little rapport. You can show them your building plans and see what they think or ask them if they've done inspections at your particular venue before and if there's any advice they want to give.
  • Northeast Philadelphia
    Rising Sun Ave. & Benner St., Philadelphia, PA
    (215) 685-0581

  • Central Philadelphia
    990 Spring Garden St., 7th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19123
    (215) 685-3787

  • South Philadelphia
    11th & Wharton Sts., 2nd Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19147
    (215) 685-1576

  • North Philadelphia
    217 E. Rittenhouse Street, Philadelphia, Pa 19144
    (215) 685-2276

  • West Philadelphia
    43rd & Market Sts.,Philadelphia, PA 19104
    (215) 685-7681

If a TCO has been issued for your venue before, see if you can find the certificate itself - it will be signed by an inspector, and he or she may be the best contact person. [top]

STEP 5: File the TCO
Once you have all your ducks in a row regarding the application form and the architectural drawings, find yourself two spare hours, preferably first thing in the morning (filing is allowed between 8AM and 3PM, and note that the office closes at noon on the last Wednesday of each month), and take your completed Building Permit Application and six copies of your building plans to:
Department of Licenses and Inspections
940 Municipal Services Building
15th & JFK Blvd., Lower Level, Philadelphia, PA 19102

Take a number, and be prepared to wait for an incredibly long time for them to call you up. Give them your application. They have 30 days after the time you file the application to take any action, and they'll probably use the entire 30 days. Make sure you get an application number from them, and keep it safe, because you'll need it when you start chasing them down in a month's time. [top]

STEP 6: Meanwhile, back at the ranch, make sure the following are up to scratch:
Liability Insurance
This isn't necessary for your TCO, but your event needs to be insured. Some venues have special insurance requirements, so again, check with the owner about these.

Recommended insurance broker:
Chris Garrity, Domenick and Associates
325 Chestnut Street, Suite 916, Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 629-5701 x200
Chris does the insurance for all the LiveArts and Fringe Festival shows, and is very knowledgeable and helpful about this kind of insurance. A no-brainer if you're doing a Fringe show, and I would probably go to him first even if I were doing a show outside of the Fringe.

I saw the signs - emergency signs and lighting
After the architectural drawings, the next biggest headache of the TCO application will probably be the emergency signs and lighting. Check the instructions for all the particulars, but you'll need to make sure there are adequate emergency signs and lighting around the venue, so that if there is an emergency, all egress routes are lit - including routes from the bathrooms. If there aren't emergency lights already installed, you'll have to install them yourself. According to the application, you need a licensed electrician to sign off on the emergency lighting if you install it yourself, and this may set you back a few hundred dollars unless you know a licensed electrician.

I bought cheap exit lights from Exit Light Co. and wired lamp cords into them so they could be plugged into regular outlets rather than wired directly into the walls.

Disabled accessibility
Since you read the TCO instructions and know them backwards, you already know that the venue needs to be accessible to the disabled. If your venue isn't compliant, you'll need to buy or hire portable ramps - I don't have any recommendations on this front, since I haven't had to do it yet. If there are already ramps at the venue, check that the ramps are compliant: there cannot be a step of more than 3/8 inch anywhere on the accessible path - if there is, you'll need to buy transition strip molding from Home Depot or Lowes and fix the ramps yourself.

Non combustible materials
All fabrics that you use in set dressing, etc., must be non-combustible. You can find a spray from Turning Star which can be sprayed on most fabric to make it comply with these regulations.

Fire watch
You'll need volunteers to act as "fire watch" for each public event. If your building has fire sprinklers, you'll need one person per exit. If it doesn't, you'll need two per exit. Fire watch should have a "uniform" (can be a "STAFF" shirt), a cell phone and a flashlight. Use a cheap notebook as the "Fire Watch Log," which the fire watch will sign. Instruct fire watch on how to use the fire alarms and how to get people out of the building.

Check the regulations for how many toilets you will need on the premises. If you don't have enough, you'll need to hire portable toilets. I don't have any experience with this. [top]

STEP 7: Inspection
Be prepared to play the waiting game. After 30 days, call your district office of L&I and ask to speak with whomever you contacted in STEP 4. Hopefully they'll remember you. Give them the application number that you saved in STEP 5 and ask them to check how it's doing in the system. If you're in a hurry, go back to the office of Licenses and Inspections on 15th and JFK with your application number. Take a number, wait your turn, and ask them if they can give you the business card of the engineer dealing with your application. Once you have that business card, you can start politely harassing that engineer to look at your application.

Don't bother trying to get the name of the engineer or deal with the main office over the phone. You'll waste far more time than it would take you to go down in person, unless you live in Pittsburgh. Maybe even then.

Once the engineer has signed off on your plans, you will get a notification in the mail, and the main office will send your application down to your district office. Then you can call the district office to arrange an inspection. First thing the morning of the inspection (8AM), call the district office again to confirm/double-check that the inspection is taking place that day.

During the inspection, the owner of the property must be available and in attendance, and you must be able to shut off all power to the venue to prove that the emergency lights and exit signs work. Also have copies that you can give to the inspector of the fire alarm certification and certification for any electrical work that was done. Make sure you have made a maximum occupancy sign and have the fire watch log with you.

The inspector's main job is to make sure that you have complied with all the health and safety regulations. Your set doesn't need to look perfectly pretty and the place doesn't need to be spotless, though it probably helps if it isn't a dump. Mostly, the inspector will be fixated on emergency provisions such as exits, alarms and lights, and will check that all emergency provisions on your plan have been installed and are operational.

If you pass inspection, you're done!! The district office of L&I will print out a certificate for you, sign it and seal it. Display it on your venue, and you're legal!
(Sorry, couldn't help myself.)

Where is my head? Where?

After the Gonzales Cantata wrapped up a few weeks ago, I ran headlong into my Ph.D. at Penn. Dived. Plummeted. Note to self: if it ever transpires that I hit the national spotlight again in the future, try not to start an intensive college degree immediately afterward without some kind of vacation in between. I feel so behind at everything. My brain can't find enough peace to organize itself. Whither creativity? I can't even wrap my head around keeping the house clean.

Sometimes I stare into the middle distance and fantasize about moving to some kind of mountain-top or island lair with nothing but the internet and enough food to last me about a year. Maybe after about six months, I'll write some good music.

In the meantime, over this past weekend, we seem to have acquired a new kitten. She followed Matt home on Friday afternoon when it was very cold and wet. He might possibly have encouraged her, but only a very little. I made it worse when they got to the front door by feeding her and fussing over her and generally falling for her. Matt made "We shouldn't keep her" noises for a while, but it was obvious he was taking to her as much as I, and as much as she was to us. For two days, we left her outside (with food, a cat tent and heated bed), thinking (hoping?) she would go home, wherever that might be, but she didn't budge. I guess this is home for her now.

When I left Australia, I gave my cat Kenya to my parents, thinking they would take care of her. They didn't, and she disappeared. I've felt guilty about it ever since; Kenya was an excellent cat and one of my best friends. The new cat looks a great deal like Kenya:

Naming the new cat Nairobi after poor Kenya.

Nairobi meows like a Burmese, Jesus.