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Tangled Los Angeles permit process has restaurant owners howling

Could there be simpler means to a similar end, especially for small restaurants? City Councilman Eric Garcetti thinks so.

February 18, 2009|Jessica Gelt

Within two or three months after the initiative is implemented, Garcetti says, business owners will be able to file initial paperwork online and avoid wandering the confusing maze of agency reps in Figueroa Plaza, which serves as the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety's headquarters.

Garcetti also wants to examine and rewrite existing codes and ordinances to give discretion on issues such as parking and grease interceptors according to the type, size and location of a restaurant.

"We hope we can get our city to act together," he says. "We'd love to be part of a seamless, workable solution. Restaurants are a net positive for any neighborhood, adding pedestrian life and encouraging the growth of new business."

Still, the going has been slow. Julie Wong, a representative with Garcetti's office, says it has taken more than a year to figure out how to merge the various processes that different departments have developed over decades. (Other states and municipalities have managed to streamline their systems, Garcetti says, including Utah, Rhode Island and Culver City.)

In L.A., however, the system has grown so unwieldy that it has given birth to an entire class of operators known as expediters. Eddie Navarrette is one such person. From his headquarters in a tiny downtown office above the Wonder Bakery, which looks out on the bustle of Chinatown's Central Plaza, "Fast Eddie" represents restaurant owners in dealings with the city.

'Permit specialist'

"Seventy percent of my clients have already signed a lease and are in some sort of trouble," says Navarrette, who handles the cases of 50 to 100 restaurants per year and calls himself a "permit specialist extraordinaire." He guides his clients through the maze of requirements and represents them at the right offices.

Navarrette believes that the root of the problem lies, in large part, with the number of cooks in the kitchen, but he also says there is a hierarchy of projects that is skewed toward helping big business. "Successful restaurants can pay lobbyists money, and these guys will take city officials to lunch," he says. "There should be the same type of assistance available to small business owners."

Navarrette gives the example of a small restaurant in Highland Park called Fidel's Pizza. It has been in business for more than 40 years, during which time the zoning for the lot it occupies was changed from business to residential. Recently, the county health department threatened to shut Fidel's down because it didn't have enough storage space. The elderly couple who own it built storage on the back and were then cited by code enforcement for building an illegal structure. Then they learned they had to apply for a zoning variance. If it goes on much longer, Fidel's may have to close, Navarrette says.

Another problem is what Navarrette and many business owners consider to be the arbitrary nature of certain inspectors' requests, and restaurant owners' confusion over the meaning of those requests.

Andrew Adelman, general manager of the Department of Building and Safety, points out that case managers are available to walk applicants through the process. "The [department] strives to be transparent," he says. "If an inspector makes a call that a contractor or business owner does not agree with, they can go to the supervisor of the inspector and get a second opinion."

Jill Bigelow, co-owner of a new, upscale downtown restaurant called Provecho, counters that her contractors were terrified of the inspectors and "were upset when I called those inspectors' bosses," fearing reprisal on other projects.

In Bigelow's office, six floors above her restaurant at 800 Wilshire Blvd., mountains of digital files and stacks of printouts catalog the multi-front battle that she, her developer and landlord, and her contractors fought with the city. The process extended the opening of Provecho by five months and cost "well into the six figures," although Bigelow declines to say how much. "In some ways, that's incalculable," she says.

She attributes her problems to a disconnect between approval of a restaurant's blueprints and the on-site inspection.

"We'd get plans approved, and build it according to the approved plans -- then the inspector would come and say, 'I don't like it that way, rebuild it,' " Bigelow says.

"They don't realize -- or it's not their problem -- that when you send a change back it goes through your engineer and your architect. They're seeing it from each little department they work for, and they're not seeing the whole picture."

Adelman, of Building and Safety, says inspectors approve what they see nearly 85% of the time. He says the two usual reasons for not approving a project are that it doesn't match the blueprints or it's not built in accordance with code. Adelman also says that if inspectors are going to ask for something not on the blueprints, they have to call their supervisor first to make sure it's appropriate.

Volume of cases

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