Like many large cities around the country, Oakland, Calif., competes with wealthier, development-hungry suburbs in terms of attracting businesses and jobs. For years, the permit process for developers in Oakland involved the usual round of phone calls and downtown visits with city departments to gather the necessary information.

Selecting sites for possible development was a similar process -- developers drove around the city to visit sites in person, and followed up with phone calls and research to determine whether zoning laws would allow their project to go forward. The slow, bureaucratic process did little to encourage new businesses to choose Oakland over the bustling Bay Area suburbs beyond the city's borders.

But now that is changing. The city's Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA) is slashing red tape to ribbons by merging the high-flying World Wide Web with an online permit system and mapping technology. Developers can now cruise the city from their desktop computers, search for parcels geographically using a Web browser, view the parcels from aerial photographs and look up zoning information.

"This new tool is a breakthrough," said Phil Tagami, a city planning commissioner and managing general partner for California Commercial Investments, a development firm. "As a developer, I used to feel like Indiana Jones when I went looking for zoning and development information in the city. What this technology does is put the necessary information right out there on the fly. You can now look and understand what the issues are."

Tagami said the technology has become a powerful tool for helping the city's planning commission make decisions based on accurate, up-to-date information. "When we're in a hearing and a developer who wants to put up a building says there is an adjacent lot for parking 28 cars, we can instantly call up the digital orthophoto of that parcel and see that it only holds six cars."

CULMINATING FACTORS

Oakland's trailblazing Web service is the culmination of several factors, including the 1991 hill fire, key investments in technology, the booming Internet and the vision of Frank Kliewer, CEDA's operations manager. To understand how Oakland accomplished such an effort, Kliewer says you have to go back to 1982 when the city's Planning and Building Department installed a permit tracking system.

The system replaced a blizzard of handwritten forms with IBM's AS/400 computer. In 1991, it helped the city speed up the rebuilding of homes following the disastrous fire of that year, and now it supports a host of features including a popular permit-by-fax service. While some may consider anything 14 years old a legacy system, the city recently upgraded the computer's operating system, which just happens to be Web-enabled. With a flip of a switch, CEDA was able to provide Web access to all the city's permit data.

The 1991 fire, which destroyed over 3,000 homes in the hills above Oakland, led the city to invest nearly $5 million in a geographic information system to help restore roads and utilities and to aid emergency management with preparing for any possible future disaster. Meanwhile, Kliewer quickly sized up GIS as a tool for distributing economic development information to the public in general and to developers in particular.

"Zoning is a real bottleneck in the economic development process," explained Kliewer. "A lot of time is wasted tracking down the right zoning information. Development projects can't move forward until they have the correct zoning information." In 1995, Kliewer met with the city's GIS team and was able to add zoning data to the base maps. Suddenly, staff and the public could click on electronic map parcels and get all the zoning information they needed.

In 1995, the city found out just how helpful the Internet could be when work began on rebuilding the Oakland Coliseum to prepare for the return of the Raiders, the National Football League franchise. Expected to be