April 30, 1994 - From the April, 1994 issue

Concluding Commentary: Unsolicited Advice on Permit Streamlining

Mayor Riordan and Councilman Hal Bernson convened a Task Force to release a report on how to streamline the permit process in the City of Los Angeles. Bill Christopher, coordinator of PLAN/LA, argues that the General Plan Framework has the potential to accomplish the streamlining effort. Mr. Christopher's reasoning follows that the Framework is built upon consensus that will eliminate arguments on permitting.

In early April, a Task Force brought together by Mayor Riordan and Councilman Hal Bernson will release a report making recommendations designed to streamline the permit process in the city. Anyone who has ever been embroiled in a "Catch-22" between the conflicting rules, regulations and procedures of Building and Safety, Planning, Engineering and L.A. Department of Transportation, accepts the gospel that there has got to be a better way. 

The pending report is the second in a two-step process. Late last fall, Councilman Bernson convened a preliminary Task Force, comprised of a spectrum of interests, to review the code related aspects of streamlining. That group made approximately 25 unanimous recommendations dealing with areas ranging from added categorical exemptions under CEQA guidelines to uniform appeal procedures. Disagreement arose in only two areas. The first was a discussion about the thresholds for Site Plan Review. The second centered on notice of public hearings. 

In the case of Site Plan Review, the argument was made that too many cases were needlessly being caught in the net. Rather than raise the thresholds and gut the ordinance, if minor issues dealing with canopies, signage and building placement were removed from the preview of Site Plan, the case load would drop by more than 50% and the primary reviews would still remain intact to meet the needs of the court findings. 

The question of notice of public hearing is a different ballgame entirely. Last summer planning staff raised the specter that the increased notice of 300 feet to 500 feet had, in their opinion, "not significantly increased public participation in the process"; besides they were getting back lots of mail addressed to “occupant" that was undeliverable. The initial move to revert to a 300 foot radius and eliminate tenants was met with uniform opposition in all of the city's neighborhoods. Mailing lists are notoriously inaccurate anyway. Any move to reduce the notice was viewed as another way of excluding the public from the process. 

The report due now from Mayor Riordan's Task Force is being viewed by many in the community in the same light. The work of the first task force was carried over to the second, along with several members representing industry views, but excluding those who might have had dissenting opinions. Suspicions run rampant that the short term needs and desires of the community will trample over land use reforms that have been slowly but surely secured over the past ten years. Similarly, it is feared that community concerns about streamlining, such as resolving "slight modifications", holding front yard fences to three-and-a-half feel, and combining South Central liquor cases with the mainstream ZA/BZA enforcement track will get lost in the shuffle.

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Another major concern involves funding public improvements, given the viewpoint that the present method of charging high specific plan fees is a deterrent to business, along Ventura Boulevard, for example. Without a replacement funding mechanism, we will be back to the situation before the plan, where buildings got built and public improvements never happen. Given the precarious state of our city, in the wake of a recession, riot, fire and earthquake (it's a wonder any of us are still here), we need a commitment from all parties to come together to resolve these issues, not continue the fight. 

Most of the continuing arguments over by-right versus discretion in land use, exemplified by the Site Plan discussion and the notice questions would be moot if we had a serious planning basis for our decision making. The present commitment to upgrading the Police Department, detailed in a recent financial restructuring report, is all well and good, but we also need a financial commitment to upgrading our planning infrastructure as well. The General Plan Framework, now under way, is the key stepping stone. It has the potential to define a new reality for the City. If it is followed by a full court press to produce new Community Plans, the need for the by-right versus discretion argument will melt away as consensus plans are adopted, clearly defining the shape and texture of the next Los Angeles. 

It's now up to Mayor Riordan and the City Council to move forward with the Framework and foster the consensus needed to carry the City forward. The events of the past several years have created a unique window to reevaluate our destiny. We shouldn't blow the opportunity.

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