12-to-2 was supposed to release development projects in Los Angeles from the grip of an insular, out-of-touch bureaucracy at City Hall. 12-to-2 was Mayor Villaraigosa's alliterative idea for speeding up the system - to reduce project sign-offs from twelve city divisions to just two. Boomed in the media, his idea quickly went nowhere. When Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner abandoned 12-to-2 last summer, developers wondered what would come next.
They're still wondering.
Something needs to be done to restore the confidence of business owners and property developers, as Mark Lacter complained in a column in Los Angeles magazine in February:
If you want a rough approximation of hell on earth, try opening a restaurant in the City of Los Angeles. It's not just the dozen or more government agencies that need to sign off on a project -- or the lack of communication between the Building and Safety guy who says that the electrical outlets are fine and the Fire Department guy who says that they have to be replaced. It's not even the intramural squabbling between the Planning Department and the Area Planning Commission over whether to require six or eight parking spaces. What makes L.A.'s system so horrible--often dragging out approvals for a year or longer -- is an institutional disregard for anyone running a business. In this world, bureaucracy is what rules, and if you don't like it, well, tough.
Bureaucracy may be the public face of the current system's chaos, but it's not the cause according to the developers and business consultants who attended a meeting in early February that launched a second try at "development reform" - potentially the centerpiece of Beutner's run for Villaraigosa's job in 2013.
The meeting was facilitated by KH Consulting Group as part of a $590,000 agreement with KH and other contractors to involve builders, city officials, and community members in the creation of a new development review process that is supposed to be "efficient, transparent, and consistent."
Instead, the facilitators and the developers were at odds from the beginning.
From the developers' perspective, consistency and reliability are paramount. Outdated planning and zoning documents have led to system-wide chaos, they said, and chaos benefits City Hall insiders. Above all, the developers want updated "community plans" to be adopted and uniformly enforced.
According to Katharine Young, a land-use attorney who was invited to attend the meeting:
If stringently enforced . . . updated community plans would potentially remove most future project applications from the city's discretionary review process, making them "by-right" (i.e., the city would merely confirm a proposed project's compliance with a community plan's applicable land use and zoning provisions and issue appropriate permits).
The KH facilitators were given a far narrower goal: to improve the efficiency of the part of the process that comes after the city has granted entitlements to build. The preferred fix is more technology - perhaps a website that would let developers know the status of project approvals. But a web-based tracking tool, the developers were told, could take two to three years to implement as part of a citywide technology upgrade. It will cost at least $15 million, money the city doesn't have.
Understandably, the developers weren't impressed. The cynics among them said that the present process suits the insiders - the managers of city departments, land use expediters who exploit the system's loopholes, lobbyists, and city council members who use development projects as political leverage. None of them wants the process streamlined; all of them fear a loss of power.
And if Beutner does run for mayor, his rivals on the city council are sure to strangle this latest proposal for "reform" before it goes anywhere - as they have every other plan, including the mayor's lost and forgotten 12-to-2.
Angeleños are largely forgotten, too. Chaotic or streamlined, driven by political juice or best laid plans, the mechanics of development review will continue to be out of their reach.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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