After years of focusing on making its own buildings greener, the city of L.A. is about to launch its first program to provide incentives to private developers to build green buildings.

Under the plan, developers of green-certified buildings would move to the front of the line for plan checks at the Department of Building and Safety, shaving nearly two months off the approval time.

"We see this as a way to jump-start green buildings in the private sector," said Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who co-authored the motion in February with Councilman Jack Weiss. "It's like hybrids being allowed to go into carpool lanes."

The plan still needs final approval from the Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee and then the Council before it can be put into place. Assuming those approvals are granted, the program could be up and running next month.

It would be the first step in encouraging builders in Los Angeles to go green. Other steps being considered include instituting an L.A.-specific green building checklist, opening a green building resource center similar to one in Santa Monica and possibly requiring developers seeking redevelopment subsidies to have their buildings meet green certification standards.

For now, though, the focus is on taking advantage of the momentum toward green buildings already occurring in the marketplace. Garcetti said he focused on speeding up the approval process for green buildings because it's a tangible benefit for developers that does not cost the city any money.

"What we're saying is, if you do this, we'll make things faster and easier for you," he said.

Long wait
In order to qualify for this rapid consideration, building plans must already have been submitted to the U.S. Green Building Council for consideration in its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Then the city's Building and Safety staff would examine the plans to ensure that they have enough elements to receive a LEED Silver rating.

The Building and Safety department has some experience with green building as a result of a 2002 ordinance authored by Garcetti that requires all new city-owned buildings to be LEED certified. Since then, five city buildings have been completed with the certification and 41 others are under construction or in final design stages.

Now, the attention is turning to the private sector, and the timing may not have been better. Thanks to the long real estate boom, the Department of Building and Safety has been hit with double the historical average of building plan submittals, extending the wait time for review from the usual four weeks to about eight weeks.

Department spokesman Bob Steinbeck said extra staff have been hired to work through the backlog. The department has also instituted an expedited plan check program, where applicants pay an extra fee to the department and get building plans reviewed by staff working on overtime.

Not only do these projects get done faster, but, in theory, the overall backlog should also be whittled down. However, plans for new buildings have been coming in so quickly that they have offset any gains from the expedited plan check

Unlike with expedited plan check, those building projects that qualify for the green building priority program will not have to pay an extra fee. Of course, going to the front of the line does not mean automatic approval. Steinbeck said that approval could still take several weeks, especially for major skyscrapers or if plan corrections are needed.

Steinbeck said this program is only slated to last two years, when it will be evaluated to see if it merits continuing.

"One thing we want to watch out for is if too many projects with LEED certification move to the front of the line. That would impact our ability to process other applications in a timely manner," he said.

Garcetti likened this outcome to "too many hybrids using the carpool lane." At that point, he said, the main goal of encouraging developers to go green would have been accomplished.

In the meantime, Garcetti said the city is considering other options for green buildings. One of those is requiring many of the city's existing municipal buildings to be retrofit for LEED certification, a process that would include upgrading the ventilation systems, improving insulation, installing the latest in power metering technology and altering the landscaping to reduce runoff and water usage.

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