Getting permits for restaurants or development projects in the city of Los Angeles can be a nightmare.
Just ask Jack Ravan. He spent 18 months trying to get permits to develop lofts.
Or Jill Bigelow, who spent nearly two years getting permits to open a Mexican restaurant.
But most of all, ask Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
He announced two years ago that he would streamline the process, then nothing happened. Now, stung by repeated charges from the business community that the city has dragged out his initiative, the mayor has taken action to get the streamlining plan back on track.
Villaraigosa has named Bud Ovrom, deputy mayor for economic development, head of the Department of Building and Safety. That department is one of the two main agencies, along with the Planning Department, responsible for reactivating the plan, which calls for reducing the number of agencies involved in the business and development permit process from 12 to two.
Villaraigosa – flanked by local business leaders – unveiled his so-called 12-to-2 initiative two years ago. At the time, business leaders hailed it as the administration’s first significant measure to make the city more friendly to business.
But, to the dismay of business leaders and developers, the initiative stalled, falling victim to a worsening budget crisis, bureaucratic infighting and even personality conflicts among department heads that were supposed to be working together.
“There was great hope for a couple months that something would finally be done to make it easier to get permits,” said Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “But then, progress came to a screeching halt.”
In a Business Journal interview last week on his first day on the job at Building and Safety, Ovrom acknowledged Villaraigosa’s dismay at the lack of progress and pledged to have the 12-to-2 program fully implemented by the end of this year.
“This is going to have to be ready fast,” Ovrom said. “The mayor is very unhappy with the lack of progress on this. He’s very committed to making this happen and to make up for lost time.”
Equally disappointed has been City Council President Eric Garcetti.
“I’m holding the Planning Department and Building and Safety both responsible for getting this done quickly,” he said. “Especially in this tough economy, we need to do what we can to help encourage business and create jobs here.”
Indeed, city officials and business leaders said some of the delay has been due to budget cuts and a long-standing mentality among departments that concerns – or approvals – of other departments don’t matter. But they also cited tensions between department heads.
Villaraigosa did not put anyone in charge of implementing 12-to-2, and he did not intervene to resolve any differences among department heads. Observers agree that the initiative stalled as a result. By placing Ovrom in charge, the mayor acknowledged the problem. Also, the mayor’s new jobs czar, Austin Beutner, has said he will make sure the plans are executed.
In response to such complaints, Ovrom said representatives from all the departments involved in permitting are meeting monthly and are addressing complaints about specific projects caught in the crossfire between conflicting demands from different departments.
Those complaints are legion.
Even something as innocuous as what color a building can be painted can trip projects up. Ovrom said that on a project in Chinatown, two agencies spent six months fighting over just what shade of “Chinese red” would be permitted on the buildings. “The Planning Department wanted this shade of red and the Redevelopment Agency wanted that shade of red. It’s crazy.”
In the next few months, Ovrom said the city will set up a system of consistent case numbers. Right now, as a project moves from department to department, it gets different case numbers, making it nearly impossible for one agency to track what another agency has done with the project.
But actually reducing the number of departments that developers and business owners have to go to will take longer. Just to open a restaurant in Los Angeles requires approvals from up to 15 agencies.
Jill Bigelow, owner of Provecho Restaurant, a Mexican eatery in downtown Los Angeles, cites the prepermit that she saw as she first prepared to open her restaurant three years ago.
“There were 15 different agencies that we needed to get sign-offs from,” Bigelow said. “Some were easy stops at the counter, but others, like the plumbing and electrical permits (from the Department of Building and Safety) took months.”
In all, Bigelow said, it took nearly two years to get all the permit approvals. That meant Bigelow was unable to open her restaurant during the recent boom times; she had to wait until December 2008 to open, three months after the market and economic meltdowns were under way.
James Frost, principal with Frost Chaddock Developers LLC, said 12-to-2 would make Los Angeles more business friendly.
Frost Chaddock has worked on about 15 projects in Los Angeles since 2000, including the Versailles apartment complex in Koreatown and a recently proposed mixed-use project on Fairfax Avenue near the West Hollywood border.
“It has taken a couple of years to get some projects approved,” Frost said. “We’ve grown accustomed to this, but it’s not very good. A project gets started in one type of economy and gets approved in a different type of economy: That’s how long the process takes.”
Frost said the 12-to-2 program would streamline the process and reduce the time to obtain entitlements and building permits. “It will keep us excited about doing projects in Los Angeles.”
In developer Ravan’s case, his firm spent 18 months shuttling among various city departments trying to get permits to convert an old commercial building downtown into 37 lofts.
The Building and Safety, Transportation, Water and Power, Fire, Planning departments and even the obscure Cultural Heritage Commission all had to issue permits before Ravan could build and then open his lofts to tenants.
“Each department has its own schedule, its own set of people you have to deal with and its own set of rules,” Ravan said. “On top of that, inspections at all these departments are frequently delayed. It takes months and months to get through this and it’s extremely frustrating and costly.”
Ravan had hoped for relief from the 12-to-2 initiative; presumably it would have saved him months of time and millions of dollars in extra costs.
But Bigelow, the downtown restaurateur, said her biggest issue wasn’t the number of agencies, it was the changing and contradictory directions she was given by inspectors.
“My biggest problem was in dealing with the inspectors within each department,” she said. On several occasions, inspectors would check work that had been done to previous specifications, find something wrong in the initial report, and order time-consuming and expensive fixes.
Meanwhile, the City Council could soon be adding another layer of permitting problems in the form of a cultural heritage ordinance. That ordinance would require extra approvals for projects involving older buildings.
So even if the mayor succeeds with 12-to-2, the council could turn his victory into 2-to-3.
“This makes it even more frustrating,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a Sherman Oaks-based advocacy group. “Even as the city is trying on the one hand to make the process more business friendly, with the other hand it’s going in the opposite direction.”
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