May 1, 2020 - From the May, 2020 issue

LA Building & Safety’s Osama Younan on New Digital Practices During Pandemic 

Agencies across the city of Los Angeles have integrated COVID-19 public health mandates—like physical distancing and face coverings—into their operations. TPR spoke with General Manager of the LA Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) Osama Younan on the shock his agency underwent and the department’s continuing transition away from in-person counter service to online systems, ePermit and ePlanLAto expedite city processes and provide physically distant essential service. 


"We have been investing in our technological infrastructure before COVID-19. We have been progressing at a steady pace, and now we need to explore various strategies to speed up that pace."—Osama Younan

What have been the challenges for the LA Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) of moving a department that largely operates through face-to-face interactions—for reviews, inspection, scrutiny, and follow up—to an online distance service platform for customers?

Osama Younan: LADBS continues to provide service to our customers through this pandemic crisis. We modified our operations to conform with the mayor’s guidelines and take into consideration the safety of City residents, our customers, and our staff. Most of the modifications relate to the daily, face-to-face interactions that would normally take place at the public counters, in gatherings, and at meetings. We replaced those interactions with safer, alternative methods such as phone, email, and virtual meetings—to conform with the mayor’s Safer-at-Home directive.

Instead of the face-to-face interactions at the public counters, we established drop-off and pick up areas at Figueroa Plaza, Marvin Braude Building in Van Nuys, and the West LA Development Services Center, for customers to drop off plans and documents for review or for pick up. All documents that are dropped off are quarantined for at least 24 hours to protect our staff’s safety. After quarantine, the documents are processed by our staff and customers are contacted by email and phone.  The necessary quarantine of documents has extended processing time.

Our online plan check system, ePlanLA has seen a significant increase in volume. ePlanLA can be used for submittal and plan check of many types of projects; the Department continues to work with other City departments on expanding ePlanLA to include more project types.  Other services available online are the ePermit system, which is used for issuing express permits (permits that don’t require a plan check), and the online building records search program.

Osama, the City of Los Angeles, with budget deficits the rule, not the exception, has traditionally underinvested in the technological infrastructure to support its operations. Is LADBS now updating these technological capabilities to meet this new normal for operations?

We have been investing in our technological infrastructure before COVID-19. For example, we’ve been working on e-PlanLA (online plan check system) for over a year and have already checked over 1,900 plans online. We have been progressing at a steady pace, and now we need to explore various strategies to speed up that pace.

One of the challenges is the majority of our plans need to be approved by other City departments prior to being approved by LADBS; depending on the scope of the project, it could be one or multiple departments which include the Fire Department, City Planning, HCID, and Bureau of Engineering. For that to happen, all of these departments need to be on the same system and looking at the same plans, and that’s what we’re working on right now. As far as plans that only require Building and Safety approval, they can be submitted online now.  Additionally, other online services such as ePermit, online records search, status of plan check, scheduling inspections, and other services have been available.

And has there been a serious impact resulting from this transition on project applications and counter operations?

The biggest COVID-19 operational impact was on counter operations. Smaller projects that were done through face-to-face transactions at the public counters, typically within one or two hours, are now taking longer due to the necessary 24-hour quarantine of the plans, which has caused a lag time of about two to three days.  Also, communication has been a challenge for some of the plans being dropped off due to a lack of information on the submittal documents.

As for the larger projects such as new buildings, those really haven’t seen a negative impact with respect to processing time because they continue to be processed and reviewed with the usual wait time.

Given the seriousness of COVID 19, what has the Department done with respect to assuring the ‘safety’ of your office staff, inspectors, and customers?

When working in the office and when interacting with our customers in the drop-off areas, the Department is following the Mayor’s orders; we’re making sure that everyone is adhering to the required social distancing and face covering. For our inspection operations, we have issued guidance on how to keep construction sites safe by practicing social distancing, wearing face coverings, complying with CDC-recommended hygienic measures, and other requirements. The Guidance is posted on LADBS’ website.

We had many complaints from the public about seeing construction workers too close to each other and without face coverings, which caused them to be concerned about public health and safety. So, we issued the “COVID-19 Safety Guidance for Construction Sites” to ensure the safety of construction sites.

Our inspectors, in the course of performing inspections, are looking for those guidelines to be followed. We are asking contractors to observe these guidelines for the safety of workers, the safety of our inspectors, and for public safety in general. We are taking this very seriously.

You reference that demand for LADBS online transactions is up. Elaborate on the impact of the pandemic and the city’s mandate to shelter-in-place on building and development in Los Angeles.

Obviously, it’s a shock that affected everybody. We saw submittals go down, which is expected. However, our inspection activities are still strong. We continue to monitor plan submittal and permit activities to make reasonable assessments and predict trends of what to expect in the future so we can make proper adjustments.

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I believe we have reacted well to the initial shock, this crisis developed very fast and we reacted quickly to make sure we continued to provide services for everybody. Some of the processes are not as efficient as it would be under normal conditions, but we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from architects, contractors, and other customers we serve. We strive to provide the best possible service while maintaining public safety.

Most of the impact of the crisis has been on the counter operations which mostly effect plan submittal. These are short-term impacts, and we continue to make adjustments as the situations change. For example, we developed a new online application so that once the plans are dropped off, all related fees can be paid online.

While we modified our counter operations, inspection services remain very close to normal. Other than safety measures, we did not make a lot of changes in that area; our inspectors still go to the field and perform their regular duties.

Moving forward, we will assess all the operational changes we have made due to the COVID-19 crisis and make some enhancements and practices permanent. Looking past the crisis, I believe our overall process will improve as a result.

The Department of Building and Safety reflects the vitality of Los Angeles— its growth and its development—and has generated significant revenue for the city, which is now under dire stress because of collapsing sales, hotel, and property tax revenues. What’s your outlook for how the city’s fiscal challenges might impact, or be impacted by, the department?

The Department of Building and Safety revenues are deposited to an enterprise fund, so the fees we collect are used to pay for the actual costs of the services we provide. We have seen an initial drop in submittals, but things have started to get better. It’s too early to tell what the trajectory is going to be. We continue to monitor the data every day and once things begin to stabilize in the coming weeks, we will have a better idea. 

Given this shock of this pandemic, will government—like the private sector—necessarily have to reinvent itself to fully recover? And, in that spirit of reinvention, are you entertaining presently any operational adaptations to the new 'normal’? 

We definitely need to look at our processes for enhancement opportunities to be more resilient so we can be well prepared for any future disaster, be it an earthquake or other natural disaster.  We need to be able to do all our work efficiently, expeditiously, and remotely, as much as possible, without negative impact on our customer service.

The Planning Report has published several interviews —including with the deputy mayor of Santa Monica—related to how cities have begun rethinking how best to use their sidewalks and open space for restaurants and active mobility to address the challenges of physical distancing and fears of contagion. While you are not the planning director, you are the clearinghouse for planning, fire, safety and other codes for the City. From the perspective of Building and Safety, how might public health considerations change the way public spaces are designed going forward? 

The Department of Building and Safety deals with a different set of codes than planning. From the building code perspective, code officials all over the nation are now going to have to start looking at codes in light of this crisis and examine what we need to do for the future. Materials, indoor air quality, touchless fixtures, equipment, as well as other building components are important items for discussion. Overall, we need to look at how building codes can make buildings safer for occupants in light of future pandemics. I think that conversation has already started and will continue to be more robust as we get past this initial shock.

Lastly, Speak to the personal stress of essentially 'flying without a flight plan or landing strip' your Department through this COVID-19 operational transition.

This is a very serious and difficult situation. All of us are dealing with the situations at work while making necessary adjustments to our family lives which has caused a lot of stress on everybody— it's not easy. At the end of the day, we must realize that we are public servants and must rise to the challenge to provide critical services during these challenging times. I believe we have done that and I am very thankful for the great effort put forth by all LADBS staff.

The department has pulled together. We kept communication lines open among ourselves and with our customers which enabled us to come up with the necessary adjustments to adapt to this new situation.

Moreover, the whole city pulled together, all the city departments and our political leadership were truly one big team, and that helped us tremendously to be able to support each other and in turn, help everyone that relies on our services.

 

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.