Officials Pushing Building and Safety Merger With Planning

Bud Ovrom, left, heads the Department of Building and Safety. Under a proposed merger with the Planning Department, its director Michael LoGrande, right, would be the new leader, according to people briefed on the plan.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - City officials are crafting a plan to merge the departments of Planning and Building and Safety into a single unit that would handle all aspects of the entitlement and permitting process. The consolidation would mark a major restructuring at City Hall, which currently spreads planning and permitting functions among 12 departments.

Business leaders who have been informed of the merger said officials hope to implement it before Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s term ends on July 1.

While certain details remain unclear, the latest version of the proposed plan imagines having the Planning Department and its current director, Michael LoGrande, sit atop a new development services hierarchy, said several business leaders who have been briefed on the draft plan.

LoGrande declined to comment because he said discussions about the plan and his role in the new department are ongoing.

Villaraigosa spokesman Peter Sanders said a report on the plan, spearheaded by LoGrande and Bud Ovrom, general manager of Building and Safety, is expected later this week.

“The Mayor has for months said he would like to see improved City service delivery across a range of departments and working with the City council, he is looking forward to being able to accomplish this,” Sanders said in a statement.

It is uncertain how the reorganization would impact Ovrom.

“I am working on other plans, which I’m not yet at liberty to discuss,” Ovrom said. “I’ll be fine.”

Developers for decades have complained that dispersed authority on land-use issues makes for a complicated approvals process that is fraught with contradictory directions and riddled with delays. The merger comes nearly two years after the city adopted a development reform plan authored by consultants KH-Woolpert. That plan implemented an array of new programs and changes, but it did not call for structural alterations.

While some say the KH-Woolpert plan led to certain improvements, other officials and developers have complained that it didn’t go far enough. The City Council in February approved a motion by 12th District Councilman Mitch Englander directing city staffers to report back on possible structural changes to expedite development reform.

While the proposed merger is being pushed as a bold way to improve the development system, business leaders are not yet sold on the plan. The Central City Association, which has long pushed for development reform, has not taken a position on the plan because the details haven’t been publicly presented, said Carol Schatz, the organization’s president and CEO.

“I feel that they’re going to try to quickly move this,” Schatz said. “We will demand that the proper time is given to hearing both the concerns that consolidation may raise and the recommendations we think make sense.”

Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he supports any move to streamline the process, but cautioned that its success will hinge on leadership, which could be in flux. Mayors have the power to hire and fire department heads, and a new mayor will take over in three months.

Ultimately, the key to a better functioning system will be establishing who has final authority on major approval issues, said land-use attorney Jerry Neuman, a partner at Sheppard Mullin.

“For me the question isn’t about whether consolidation is right or wrong,” Neuman said. “It’s about when you move between planning a project and implementing it, whose word should govern the decision when there’s a conflict between two departments?”

Under the latest version of the merger proposal, the last word would go to LoGrande. That’s a shift that planning experts and architects would welcome, said Will Wright, director of Government Affairs for the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles.

“Long-range planning and community planning and creating a vision for the future should be the priority,” Wright said. “If all they’re doing is entitling projects and expediting projects and reacting to the way developers are moving forward, we don’t have a system that encourages smart development.”

While the merger is being pushed as a way to improve the development process, it could also have budget implications for the city, which is facing a deficit next year of up to $150 million.

When San Diego merged its planning and building and safety departments in 2011, it did so primarily as a cost-cutting measure.

Englander told Los Angeles Downtown News in March that his proposal for structural changes in Los Angeles would not require layoffs since Planning and Building and Safety are already understaffed.

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.