Moving into an existing commercial space and permit hell


New member
May 28, 2007
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Please forgive this intrusion to the boards but I am at wit''s end and don''t know who else to turn to.
My question is:
For those of you who moved your shops into an existing space, what permits did you have to acquire from the city (other than a health permit)?

I live in Seattle and understand that each city''s rules will be slightly different but I''m guessing they''re not that different.

I''m planning to move a coffee stand into a little 400 sq ft space.
The place is almost 100 years old and is definitely not ADA accessible. In its shadowy past, it has (supposedly) housed a gun shop, bait shop, coffee shop, and much much more.
The funny thing is that there is no permit history whatsoever for the entire life of this place. Does this situation sound familiar to any of you?

It is currently stripped bare and ready to connect all the plumbing and electrical fixtures.
I''m just going to drop some counters and sinks in there (according to health dept requirements).

But, the city is telling me that I need the following permits:
establish use permit (to legalize the permitted use)
building permit
sidewalk cafe permit (for chairs and tables outside)
health permit (of course)

I''ve already verified that it is in a neighborhood commercial zone.
The problem is that I keep hearing different things about permits when I go to talk to the city planner''s office. Considering my lack of knowledge and experience with the permitting process, I''m guessing that the wording of my questions has probably caused them to misunderstand my current situation.
I just find it hard to believe that so many businesses could have gone in and out of my space and not gotten permits unless it was really necessary.
I''m guessing that the previous coffee shop just obtained a health permit and nothing more.
So, I''m tempted to do the same. What has me going nuts is that I''m not even sure if that''s illegal.

Thanks for hearing my rants. Any advice is greatly appreciated.



New member
Feb 13, 2006
Philadelphia, PA
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Because you will be doing food service in a space that did not previously serve food I guarantee you that the process will be more complicated than if you just wanted to sell magazines or shoes. Every locality works a little different but here in Philadelphia you basically need two permits to operate: use permit (zoning) from the department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) and a food service license from the health department.

To get the food license we have to go through the Health Department. This permit is actually issued by the "license issuance" desk of L&I, though, and they will not issue this license until they check to see if the space is zoned accordingly. Here in Philly, if the space is not zoned specifically for eat in and take out food you have to go before the zoning board to ask for a variance. This requires getting a letter of support from the local neighborhood association and councilperson's office and then a hearing with the zoning board. Overall this takes about 3-4 months.

Of course we are also required to get building permits if any construction is necessary. Generally they let you grandfather in any non-ADA features that are in your space. Any alterations or new construction is required to be ADA complient, though. So, in Philly anyway, if you're putting in a new bathroom it has to be ADA complient, even if your front steps are not (assuming you are not altering the entrance).

They will not issue a building permit, though, if the zoning is not consistent with what you are building. So you gotta get the zoning taken care of before you can get a building permit. Finally, plumbing, hvac & electrical permits additional permits you have to get, which is not such a big deal once you have your building permit.

Oh yeah, we also have to get a sign permit from L&I and a license for outdoor seating from the streets department.

Overall the process is very time consuming, expensive, and a major pain in the neck. I guess it is designed to make sure people are safe from the least common denominator.