DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Eighteen months after the city adopted a $600,000 plan to reform its notoriously Byzantine development permitting process, implementation has been slow. Now, city leaders are considering more radical changes, though they may sound familiar to veterans of City Hall.
In July 2011, consultants KH-Woolpert delivered a slate of proposed reforms, including long-term initiatives such as a five-year plan to overhaul the city’s 1946 zoning code. It also established a case management office that many say has improved coordination among staffers from the city departments involved in planning, permitting and inspections.
However, the plan’s long list of action items has not yet resulted in the major changes that many hoped would occur.
“I think reform is probably too great a word to describe what has happened,” said Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Central City Association, a key driver in streamlining the permitting process.
Some say the KH-Woolpert plan has fallen short in part because it did not address what is widely considered the fundamental problem with L.A.’s development system: Too many departments have authority on approvals, and projects are routinely held up by conflicting directions from different agencies.
Previous efforts to reform the process centered on consolidating those departments so that individuals hoping to open a restaurant or raise a building would interface with fewer agencies and inspectors. The most notable consolidation effort, known as “12 to 2” because it would have reduced the number of agencies that applicants dealt with from a dozen to two, withered in 2010. The effort failed partly because some department heads resisted the prospect of relinquishing their roles in the process.
With the KH-Woolpert plan yielding only modest results so far, officials are now essentially turning back to consolidation.
Last month, the City Council directed various departments to propose structural changes that could streamline the system. A report is due by March 14.
“All roads on development reform seem to lead back to departmental silos,” said Robert “Bud” Ovrom, general manager of the Department of Building and Safety, which oversaw the contract with KH-Woolpert. “What we’re hearing from people is a lot of stuff in the KH report is good and ‘it’s nice that you get along better, but our lives in the field as developers is not that much improved.’”
From 12 to 1
Twelfth District City Councilman Mitch Englander, who authored the recent reorganization motion, said there are clear opportunities for structural fixes. The Department of Planning, for example, could absorb the planning functions now carried out by the Department of Transportation, he said.
Ideally, the system would function as a single entity in the eyes of project applicants, said Englander, who rejected the idea that the proposal is a “consolidation” effort. The fact that city departments such as Planning and Building and Safety are currently understaffed means any shifts in responsibilities would not require layoffs, he said.
Englander acknowledges that previous structural streamlining efforts have all failed, but none of those past attempts involved a mandate from the council, he said.
“While the departments might win in that power struggle, and they have so far, ultimately the city and the businesses lose,” Englander said. “I think the council tried to let it resolve itself organically and that didn’t materialize, and so I think we’ve got to take a different approach and look at doing it legislatively.”
Matthew Karatz, the deputy mayor for economic affairs who was charged with overseeing implementation of the KH-Woolpert plan, said he worked closely with Englander on the latest proposal. Karatz, who resigns from his post today, agreed that the plan has a similar objective as 12 to 2, but he said the upcoming report will not call for absolute consolidation of any departments.
More likely, he said, would be a series of realignment plans that get implemented over time.
“Wholesale changes typically increase the risk profile of success,” Karatz said.
Despite the call for more streamlining, many developers and architects say that the system has seen important progress over the past two years. Some of that stems from the Restaurant and Hospitality Express program, which preceded the KH-Woolpert plan when it was launched in 2010 after lobbying from the Central City Association.
The program created a dedicated case management unit that assigns one city staffer to help restaurant and hospitality projects navigate the permitting maze.
Those who have received help include designer Osvaldo Maiozzi, who secured approvals for the new Arts District restaurant Bestia. He said a case manager helped smooth things over when a plan checker insisted that Bestia have two toilets in a women’s restroom that was intended as a single-accommodation facility.
The change would have significantly increased the size of the bathroom, hiking costs and cutting into floor space for the restaurant itself, Maiozzi said. The directive was also based on a strict interpretation of a plumbing code rule that is often applied more liberally.
Eventually, Maiozzi’s case manager took the conflict to the express program supervisor, who overruled the plan checker.
“My experience is that it’s extremely positive because you can in days open doors that probably before you needed weeks to open,” Maiozzi said. “It helps you to facilitate, but obviously the difficulty to get a permit is still the same.”
Andrew Meieran, who is overseeing a major renovation of Clifton’s Cafeteria at Seventh Street and Broadway, faced a similar dilemma.
In order to provide sufficient power to the historic venue’s future mix of bars and eateries, the city required Meieran to install a modern electrical panel. He removed the old panel and replaced it with an upgraded one. But when it came time to turn on the new equipment, the Department of Water and Power wouldn’t sign off on the request to activate it. Meieran said he was instructed to first finish installing new electrical infrastructure throughout the gutted building — but without the panel activated, there was no way to power the tools to do the job, let alone use the elevator or have lights.
It took more than three months to secure a resolution, even with the help of a case manager, said Meieran.
“All the inspectors have been exceptionally helpful and constructive in their approach,” he said. “But there are conflicting needs from different departments and they’re sometimes contradictory. There’s nobody who has the authority to make these reconciliation decisions in one place.”
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.