A new city office meant to simplify L.A.’s building permit process was cheered by business leaders last week, but others in the development community who remember past failures were skeptical of the reform.

The Development Services Case Management Office groups workers from five city departments in one place and assigns each project a case manager to help developers resolve conflicts.

The plan is another effort at reform by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose much publicized “12-to-2” campaign to reduce the number of agencies handing out permits succumbed last year to bureaucratic turf wars.

Ben Reznik, an attorney at Jeffer Mangels Butler and Mitchell LLP who guides developers through permitting, said the new office could be helpful in interpreting building codes and planning ordinances, but questioned what authority it might have.

“The key is: When you get the answer from this office, can you bank on that answer all the way through the process?” he said. “Or is someone else later in the process going to be able to reverse that?”

Mark Armbruster, a land-use attorney at Armbruster Delvac & Goldsmith LLP, said that his clients had similar concerns.

“In the past there’s always been a concern about being told one thing that changes down the line and causes delays,” he said. “I can’t say how it will work or not work until we see it in action.”

Villaraigosa announced the proposal in the Department of Building and Safety offices, surrounded by key aides and supporters, including Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Gary Toebben and Central City Association Chief Executive Carol Schatz.

Going through the office is optional, but it’s designed to be especially useful for large and complex projects. Workers from the Building and Safety, Planning, Water and Power, Transportation and Engineering departments have been transferred to the new office.

Building and Safety General Manager Bud Ovrom said that he understands the skepticism but said it was “the most significant tangible development reform” in decades.

“We have a proven track record of failure, but I can walk out my door, take 20 steps, and walk into a new office with a comprehensive system and chain of command,” he told the Business Journal.

Bureaucratic resistance

Recent efforts to reform the permitting process date back to 1995, when then-Mayor Richard Riordan formed a Development Reform Committee to streamline the process, but most of the proposals went nowhere. In 2008, Villaraigosa picked up the baton with his ultimately failed 12-to-2 proposal.

Ovrom recounted one department head who refused to participate, telling him to change the name of the program to “11-to-1.” Another department head sent representatives to 12-to-2 meetings with instructions not to contribute.

“A couple of the departments were passive-resistant and active-resistant. Clearly there was a lack of genuine commitment,” he said.

Last year, city officials hired consultants to develop a replacement plan, while less cooperative department heads have been replaced, Ovrom said.

Also, under the new plan, if agencies in the new office can’t agree on a point, such as the width of a sidewalk next to a project, that issue would get kicked up to a committee of assistant general managers – and then to the general managers themselves if necessary, he said.

Schatz, whose Central City Association promotes downtown business, said past failures might motivate the bureaucracy to buy in this time.

“I believe the mayor is very invested in this now and I see no reason why it can’t be very effective,” she said. “That’s a black eye the city will get if they don’t do what they say they’re going to do.”

Matt Karatz, managing director of the mayor’s Office of Economic and Business Policy, said additional reforms will be released in the next couple of weeks, including technology that allows projects to be tracked online. Those reforms are the most expensive and are estimated to cost $20 million. Fees could help pay for that, but the city also has begun talking to foundations and other outside resources to help pay, he said.

Not everyone wants developments to move through the process faster.

Dick Platkin, a former city planner and current consultant for several homeowners associations, said the reforms would make it easier for real estate speculators who develop projects and sell them off.

“Development reform in all of its different components is almost entirely focused on the small minority of large projects which require complicated permits that are not consistent with the city’s building and zoning codes and adopted plans,” said Platkin, who expects legal challenges to the reforms.

– Reporter Howard Fine contributed to this story.

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