Development Reform Recommendations from AIA Los Angeles

Last Updated: January 31, 2011

Development Reform Recommendations from AIA Los Angeles

3780 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90010, USA

To access the PDF of this letter, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

January 31, 2011

Bud Ovrom, General Manager, Department of Building & Safety
Michael LoGrande, Planning Director, Department of City Planning
City of Los Angeles
201 N. Figueroa Street, Suite 1000
Los Angeles, Ca. 90012

Re: Development Reform Recommendations from the American Institute of Architects

Dear Mr. Ovrom and Mr. LoGrande:

On behalf of AIA|LA, thank you for the opportunity to provide suggestions for streamlining the development approval process within the City of Los Angeles. The following suggestions have been culled from our members who work on the front lines every day in both Building & Safety and City Planning. We believe that the improvements in processing and code reform that we recommend are necessary to create a more reliable and predictable development process. These development reforms will help the City of Los Angeles reach its goals of economic growth, budgetary reductions, and a high quality of life for its citizens without sacrificing thoroughness or public safety.

Break down departmental silos to reduce inefficiency and poor communication

Background: Our members find that departmental silos of DOT, BOE, LAFD, DWP and others lead to redundant approvals and frequent conflicting requirements for a single development project. For example, on a recent project LAFD rejected trees in a side yard that were required and approved through the WWDRB process. Lack of communication causes conflicting requirements and creates a time consuming circular process. In another example, conflicting requirements for grey water systems between the Health Dept, Grading Dept, LADBS and the Project Soils Engineer required that the customer act as a go-between to get a resolution.

Recommendations: Create a position of department 'ombudsman', a person who acts as a trusted intermediary, internally and externally. Give this person authority to make interpretations that all involved departments adhere to. Institute regular meetings and/or conference calls between departments to resolve issues.

Remove redundant clearance requirements. If an item is required to be on a permit set of plans, do not require further documentation of that item. For example, eliminate the requirement for a separate fee and a notarized letter for a highway dedication because this is required to be shown on the approved plans for permit.

Improve communication between LADBS and LAFD. The rules change and there is sometimes inconsistency even within LAFD. Currently, multiple sign offs between LADBS and LAFD are required resulting in the time consuming process of trying to locate the specific contact in each department to negotiate with and sign off a modification. In some cases one department refuses to sign off until the other signs off and vice versa, resulting in a circular approval process.

Provide a public system to resolve the LAFD interpretations of code issues that are often at odds with published ICC IRs. In some cases, this department refuses to implement adopted code changes.

Make DWP a stakeholder in the plan check process. As a participating team member they will have incentive to resolve conflicts and work in a timelier manner. Currently, costly consultants are hired to coax answers, designs, and approvals from the Department.

Improve customer service and response time to speed revenue-generating development projects -

Background: The plan check process takes an extraordinary amount of time especially now that the volume of projects is down. Even so, many times plan checkers just circle the standard corrections and do not really look at the plans in a thorough manner. A lack of detailed review requires repeated checking, additional plan check fees and inspectors to pick things up in the field that should have been caught during plan check.

Recommendations: Provide incentives for staff to review projects efficiently and make returning phone calls promptly a standard way of doing business. Provide continuity with another plan checker if one is on vacation.

Allow back-room-plan check during morning hours again. Limiting plan check to the afternoon has caused a delay in plan check verification as the plan checkers have limited time for appointments.

Provide flexibility in allocating the resources of the counter plan checkers. Allow them to plan check simple projects if they are not busy even if the plans were started in the backroom.

Delegate more decision-making to lower level checkers so they feel freer to make code interpretations and resolve conflicts without involving senior managers. While upper level staff is very helpful, there can be a tendency to retribution by counter staff if they feel overruled.

Eliminate the tendency for frequent inspections and re-inspections. This creates delays in construction, is more frequent than in the past, and is unnecessary. Create a standard policy to resolve discrepancies between LADBS plan check and Inspection.

Provide customer satisfaction surveys in each department, review the responses and identify problems that may be recurring. Engender helpfulness and service (yes, we can help you!).

Improve online resources to create efficiency and transparency -

Background: The internet offers a huge opportunity to submit plans for checking, track job progress, note special requirements, and list approvals that may be required. An online job-tracking system would minimize lines at the counters and save staff time on routine appointments. For example, the California Department of the State Architect (DSA) accepts electronic plan submissions.

Recommendations: Create a universal web-based portal system for all relevant City departments that the customer and all City departments can use, with an online project tracking system. Make the clearance summary worksheet viewable online to applicants. Create a "notes" space to track issues, questions and requirements for each clearance that all parties (and applicants) can access. Provide a mechanism by which the customer can be told up-front (before plan submittal) which clearances will be needed for which type of project. Provide online requirements for each department with contact information tied to the standard clearance summary sheet.

Improve clarity and uniformity of City forms by developing a comprehensive online document that walks applicants through the process for each item on the clearance summary worksheet that is more in-depth than just a phone number/address to contact.

Maintain current information. Update the "Current LA Building Code" page. (http://ladbs.org/LADBSWeb/codes.jsf). It is confusing to many contractors/clients as to which code is currently in effect.

Allow plans and forms to be submitted electronically. The complications and cost imposed on both LADBS and project teams for printing, submitting and archiving paper submissions are enormous. If paper submittal is required, provide 'one-stop' submittal, to one counter, with routing handled internally. The following White Paper by the AIA can help guide the City through the process of implementing online plan checking and gives specific examples of other large cities accepting electronic submittals: http://www.natlpartnerstreamline.org/whitepaper.php

Simplify City Planning processes and approvals by eliminating duplicative or conflicting requirements -

Background: LADBS typically enforces zoning, but sometimes there is a standoff between Planning and Building where the one defers to the other, with neither willing to make a decision. This was recently the case regarding minimum dimensions related to the space required between residential buildings on a lot. Additionally, unnecessary time is spent in redundant planning reviews.

Recommendations: Create a tiered planning review process. Assign easy cases to associate staff for a quick review, leaving the senior ZAs to review difficult cases.

Offer a speedy administrative review option if there are no known complaints to a Planning variance or CUP. Planning should create standard conditions to facilitate CUP approvals and it should extend the amount of time given with a CUP approval. It should reduce the unnecessary Plan Approvals when a project has not received any complaints.

Provide a mechanism by which projects get an initial zoning code approval prior to building plan submittal. This will assist with confirmation of entitlement and will provide a level of reliability so that the expense of the full building plan submittal is spent wisely.

Protect the definition of 'by-right'. If a potential project meets all the requirements imposed by zoning and planning with no variances, the customer should be able to build that project without further public review or City approval.

Design Review Board plans should be vetted through City Planning before DRB approval is granted and then only one department should plan check and sign off, not both. Eliminate the requirement for LACPD to review plans that already have been approved through the DRB process. Currently, DRB approvals are given without thorough verification of planning and zoning requirements. During the DRB process, accurately verify zoning requirements with LACPD.

Provide an expedited administrative approval for simple variances such as over-in-height fences and minor yard variances. If neighbors are in support, the City and customer can save time and expenses eliminating a one-year to review thousands of dollars in fees that could be well in excess of the actual cost to construct the fence.

Eliminate redundant requirements between CRA and Planning. Establish formal review guidelines/protocol for CRA that do not duplicate or overlap LACPD requirements.

Provide transparent, predictable, simple plan check procedures -

Background: Frequently, it is impossible for the customer to determine how many plan checks are needed, what should be in each set, and at which counter they need to be submitted. This lack of clarity slows down the process considerably and creates an undue burden for the customer. For example, currently customers have to plan check in the Valley then drive to WLA for a BOE clearance.

Recommendations: The case management system for larger complex projects worked well and should be expanded to include all projects. Establish a preliminary meeting with customer and all relevant departments so that major issues are reviewed early (during schematic design) and do not wait until final plan submittal.

Establish a point of contact for all projects. This individual will be responsible for shepherding the project through the entire plan check process, assisting with interdepartmental conflicts, resolving code ambiguities and modifications, and maintaining a schedule to clear plan check and move projects out of the City and into construction. This will create more reliability for the customer and will streamline the process internally by simplifying communication between departments and with the customer.

Follow the example of other cities and provide a mechanism by which the customer can schedule a 'fast' plan check for a much larger fee, with all department staff at one table, reviewing the plans, after which a permit is obtained (Las Vegas had a mechanism for this at a high hourly rate, and permit could be obtained in as little as 2 days-or a 12-day plan check turnaround for projects over $5 million). This will provide options to those who require a very fast turnaround.

Require the project's Plan Check Engineer's managing supervisor to review the Plan Check Engineer's clearance sheet. Frequently, projects have clearances that later are deemed unnecessary.

Delegate authority to sign off on issues while the project is under construction. Senior inspectors could be given authority to sign off standard modifications based on template justifications which will avoid unnecessary trips to LADBS to meet with a principal or chief inspector or plan checker.

Allow for concurrent plan check and internal routing between all departments and establish time frames within which the City must process the plans. Make it one of the department's services to the customer to route plans, establish fees, and obtain separate clearances.

Simplify fee calculations. Base fees and bonds on the size of the project and/or depth of subterranean garage rather than requiring the customer to wait until after plan check. For example, some fees for shoring are based on the number of a certain type of anchor, something not verified until after the plan check is complete. Also, the City should evaluate the total cost of permits and fees required, as it has been growing over the years and is much higher than other cities.

Eliminate the separate fee, different location, and plan check/clearance for Industrial Waste and fold that into the normal Plumbing plan check.

Require one fee in lieu of several small ones. 95% of all checks written for clearances are written to 'City of LA', however, each 'counter' requires that a separate check be written for each specific clearance item. Generally, amounts are not known or clearly stated. Providing a more consistent and transparent accounting of fees will enable the City to reduce staff time and will provide the customer with predictability. Once amounts are determined, allow customers to log onto a web site and pay one fee in lieu of several small separate fees.

Clarify routine requirements to avoid delay and inefficiency -

Background: There are some processes and code items that consistently result in the same work-around or variance or that case unnecessary delay. Since these are known ahead of time, institutionalize the solutions so they are not treated as exceptions in the future. Every checker undoubtedly has their own list of what these are and the following list might prompt some more in depth study.

Suggestions: Soils report addendum letters need to be generated by the soils engineer then put back in the cue and rechecked. Ideally, addendum letters would not be re-queued and, even better, a quick call from plan checker to grading might resolve an issue without additional submittals.

Provide better coordination between LADBS divisions and applicants and clearer requirements for storm water mitigation. Currently large amounts of coordinated effort between SUSMP/grading and structural, is required to facilitate this on tight urban sites. The customer's ability to execute more innovative solutions is still rough and inefficient. For example, removing non-permeable surface should not count toward the 5,000sf/50% trigger for redevelopment. Removing hardscape and replacing it with permeable paving should help, not hinder, this requirement.

Eliminate a separate accessibility plan check. The structural plan checker should be able to review accessibility issues, thereby eliminating an entirely separate plan check. This is standard in other municipalities. Note: The Disabled Access Division tends to be very conservative in its interpretations. For example, Los Angeles is the only City that requires a 5'-diameter circle or a T-turnaround in multi-family bathrooms (more restrictive than code).

Revise the interpretation of the Retaining Wall Ordinance as the current interpretation is complicated and not in line with the intent of the ordinance.

Plan check should verify code required CalOSHA items that are required for the permanent building, such as window washing and unscheduled maintenance, which are not now checked by LADBS. Unless the customer knows about this, it can be a surprise that some buildings do not comply, usually late in the process.

Provide clear requirements for projections into the public right of way. The building code has to be complied with, but it is usually Public Works that makes the final decision, and they can be difficult to pin down. Allow exterior fences/walls, grading, retaining walls, etc to be shown on one set of LADBS plans for approval.

Update the handout for Type-V Single-Story Residential. It is outdated due to the new code. LADBS is reviewing each submittal on a 'case by case' basis using their 'best judgment'. This indecision makes planning and scope of work difficult when speaking to clients/contractors.

Redefine the 'open-to-the-sky' roof deck so that it is not considered a story. The current code is fairly clear on this, but City of Los Angeles considers this a story which creates issues when the project has a limitation on stories based on occupancy and building type - usually for multi-family projects. The City has required mitigation through the modification process which usually takes an inordinate amount of time. The mitigation is usually the addition of an additional exit stair creating a less efficient and more expensive building.

Eliminate the modification for specific 'crack repair' products.

Eliminate the modification for a sump pump for storm water.

Eliminate the modification to have a community kitchen in an affordable housing project.

Eliminate the modification for customers that utilize the CA State Historic Building code.

Eliminate the modification to waive the bond requirement from a property within the 'Hillside Grading Area' that is clearly flat.

Eliminate the requirement to pull an excavation permit and bond prior to pulling a building permit for 'minor' underground work.

For 'substantial' underground work, eliminate the requirement for an excavation haul route, staging diagram, hauling company, public hearing etc prior to pulling a building permit. Typically, the contractor is not hired until after the permit is ready and this information cannot be obtained two months prior. A public hearing for excavation of greater than 1,000 cy takes a minimum of 6 weeks. Providing approved shoring plans prior to building permit should be adequate. Remaining hauling paperwork and public hearing can be done by the contractor after the permit is pulled.

Eliminate separate Geotechnical review. This traditionally takes a considerable amount of time. Los Angeles' is one of the only building departments that has a separate review process.

Allow narrow drainage devices such as "Trem-drain" (a standard industry product) in zero-lot-line shored conditions for subterranean retaining wall drainage. Currently, the Department won't accept this but will only accept "rock-pocket" details which can be difficult to build.

Define Urban Forestry requirements. These seem to change in terms of the type, location, and number of street trees wanted, and this usually occurs at the end of construction, when the contractor is trying to obtain the certificate of occupancy.

Simplify plan check requirements within BOE -

Background: The plan check for B-permits and the process to finalize and index B-permits takes much longer than necessary. The entire process should be modernized including electronic submittal, electronic clearances, and indexing with fellow departments.

Recommendations: Eliminate BOE reviews of lateral support as it is redundant with LADBS review by structural plan checkers of all shoring projects. This is a duplicative review, increases costs, bonds, and time. LADBS should be the only department reviewing private property shoring.

BOE should provide an option for expedited review/plan check of B-permit applications and provide a set time for review of all revocable permits.

BOE should coordinate with the Planning Department during all Community Plan updates to remove road designations that are not appropriate to an area. For example, many hillside streets are designated as "hillside limited streets" with a right of way of 36 feet. There are few streets in the hills actually widened for a full 36 feet with curbs, sidewalks and gutters. The usual road width is 20 feet and it is unlikely that any of the existing roads will ever be widened for the full 36 feet. Furthermore, the existing homes encroach into what is considered the ROW triggering the need for a revocable permit. Eliminate the need for a revocable permit while the required width of hillside streets are evaluated and updated to reflect reality.

Reorganize off-site plan check. Approvals of all off-site improvement projects suffer from overlapping and conflicting design requirements and guidelines among BOE and DOT, resulting in a circular plan check process. Separate the 'design' and 'plan-check' processes by removing the plan-check and inspection functions from BOE and place them within LADBS. Consolidate the design functions of the Street Lighting and Street Tree divisions, including those which reside within DOT, into one group along with the Engineering; preferably this group would be in DOT rather than BOE. A further simplification would be to place portions of DOT under City Planning so that the design of our streets builds great cities and not just vehicular roadways.

Eliminate unnecessary departments -

Background: In the quest to streamline and reduce the City budget every department should be looked at to see if its functions are already performed as well by others or could be easily folded into an existing department eliminating redundant middle management positions and reducing overhead.

Recommendations: Eliminate the Flood Division of BOE completely as a very small number of properties fall within a flood zone. Review could be done within another existing department.

Eliminate the LARR Department. Given the other testing agencies that exist, the process seems redundant. Require products to meet ASTM, ICBO, ICC, UL or other appropriate testing agencies used by other cities in lieu of the LARR. Additionally, this department creates a barrier for small manufacturers, discourages innovation, and reduces the use of sustainable products. The LARR process for new sustainable materials is very slow and often results in the rejection of a product that is allowed in other cities.

Reduce paperwork to promote efficiency and customer service -

Background: Paperwork is currently required for much of what is already required on permitted plans. Imposing a legal requirement in only one location, such as on the plan set, will improve enforcement, reduce waste and centralize project information.

Recommendations: Allow digital filing or station someone from LA County Recorder within LADBS for covenants and affidavits. Or, place the requirement on the plans and eliminate the recordation process where possible. Simplify the complex code structure within the city. Without deregulation of the code environment, codes continue to grow and the cost to manage and inform the public during the approval process will continue to become more complex and expensive. This complexity and expense punishes the lower income and small business development. In one simple example, the code requires sprinklered landscapes numerous other laws as well as LEED certification discourage use of water in favor of xeriscape.

Complete Community Plans and Zoning Code reform to promote consistent development -

Background: Enforceable Community Plans are necessary to ensure predictability in the development environment. Completing these plans will encourage job growth, reduce discretionary actions, stimulate economic development, provide for more housing, and better integrate our built environment with our transportation systems.

Recommendations: Allow projects within the Plan areas to proceed "by right" under a blanket CEQA process and a master EIR when a Community Plan or a Specific Plan is in place and has undergone multiple public hearings, traffic studies, and other environmental evaluations. This probably is the single most important issue that will jump start smart growth and economic development in the city.

Consider looking at other resources or partnerships that could help cover the costs to update the Plans such as ULI, foundation grants, etc.

Consider lower-cost planning efforts rather than exclusively relying on expensive CP updates. As an example, DLANC (Downtown LA Neighborhood Council) about 5 years ago had a visioning exercise for 7th Street, led by USC's Neighborhood Planning Project. That exercise, cost-free to the City, led to the "Restaurant Row" concept that brought Bottega Louie and other revitalization to 7th Street, including adaptive reuse of previously vacant upper stories. Such micro-visioning efforts could be held around the city in areas where new density is needed or likely.

Simplify the entitlement process and make it more understandable. Classify all projects into four or five different processes that apply to any type of entitlement request, from a simple variance to a complicated Specific Plan. When an application is filed, the process could be immediately determined and the level of environmental review required made clear including the deadlines, number of hearings, and other requirements.

Increase appeal fees. For $100, someone can delay a project for months or years. Increase the fee to eliminate frivolous appeals.

We look forward to working with you to implement these and other ideas as a way to improve service and operate more efficiently.

Very truly yours,

Nicci Solomons, Hon. AIACC
Executive Director
AIA Los Angeles

Last updated: 12-Dec-2012 07:56 AM
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