Planning Traffic Jam

Planning Traffic Jam

Simon Pastucha used to be one-half of the city of Los Angeles’ urban design studio. But since his colleague Emily Gabel-Luddy recently retired early under a municipal austerity program, Pastucha is now the head as well as the only employee of a city bureau that seeks to improve the aesthetic quality of new developments and streetscapes. He hopes the staffing reduction does not interfere with new projects that might be referred to his office. But he is worried about keeping up with the workload once the economy picks up as delays in city reviews could postpone ground-breakings. “Approval of a project means there are jobs and there is investment,” he said. “If you are slowing the construction industry, that could slow any recovery.”

Such concerns are rumbling through Los Angeles City Hall and the architecture community as the deficit-plagued city takes steps to reduce its payroll through early retirements, furloughs, and some outright layoffs. The Planning Department and Building and Safety Department are taking hits that are expected to make it more time consuming for designers and developers to get the zoning variances, plan checks, inspections, and certificates they need.

The actual size of the manpower reductions is still in flux, depending on political decisions and negotiations with city unions. The Building and Safety Department so far has seen nearly 110 employees, or about 11%, leave mainly through early retirements, with more than half of them inspectors, according to department spokesman Bob Steinbach. The Planning Department has lost 44 employees, or about 15%, of its staff, mainly to early retirements—including Principal Planner Jane Blumenfeld, who is planning to leave shortly—as well as instituting some furlough days and eliminating overtime, officials said. And as a stop-gap solution to funding issue, Planning Director S. Gail Golberg said the department has increased fees to reduce its dependence on general revenue from outside sources.

While conceding a lot of valuable expertise is going out the door, city officials promise they are taking steps to minimize the impact. Architects, meanwhile, say they are worried what will happen when the economy improves and there is suddenly more demand for their designs and related city services.

Donnie Schmidt, a senior associate at Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOHA), was upset to recently learn that a planning official was taking early retirement in the middle of reviewing a residential addition project the firm was working on. With some plan changes that needed a second look, losing someone familiar with the design was not a happy prospect. “It definitely slowed us down. And we accrued additional costs,” until another city official took on the case and approved it, Schmidt said. He added that architects will have to adjust to reduced city staff. “Yes, there are challenges in dealing with the bureaucracy, but at the end of the day, it is a necessary chain of command, and it’s the system we have to abide by,” he said.

Gwynne Pugh, principal at Pugh + Scarpa, is concerned about how cutbacks may further delay permitting and project reviews within the LA bureaucracy. “It’s a laborious process and adds to the cost of doing business for the developers and architects who rarely get reimbursed for the cost,” Pugh said. 

There is also the problem of working for the city. Pugh’s firm has designed a rooftop shelter and observation platform for the restored 1932 “Tropical America” mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. Not only has the city been slow to select a contractor for the municipal project, but officials also have asked architects with city business to reduce their fees by 10%. Pugh said he is upset with the request so far has ignored it.

Since there is limited design and construction work at the moment, Building and Safety has kept up with plan checks and most inspections. But mechanical and electrical plan checks are showing delays, stretching from the usual 12 days to 18 days, Steinbach said. And with many inspectors working just four days a week because of temporary furloughs, some inspections take 48 hours after the request, not the 24-hour turnaround the city has prided itself on.

The department’s hopes that its rejiggered budget, with more fees and less dependence on the city’s hard-pressed general revenue pot, will not only help save money now but make the department’s budget more nimble in the future. Once work picks up, so will fees and thus the department’s capacity. “We are optimistic we will meet all the demands of the industry,” Steinbach said.

Planning Director Goldberg realizes her departments current deficiencies. “It’s fair to say we are not getting things done more quickly,” she said. “We obviously don’t have as many people working on it as we should.” But since fewer proposals are under city review during the recession, she said she has not seen any disruptive delays from the manpower cuts. Goldberg did admit that the loss of department veterans with strong expertise is a concern, though the remaining staff is being trained to pick up the slack.

Will Wright, AIA/Los Angeles’ director of government and public affairs, said he was also worried about the cuts’ impact on the departments and the city as a whole. “We’re losing a vast amount of expertise and human knowledge,” he said. The AIA is now working with the city in the hopes of preserving such know-how, possibly through volunteer efforts. And he said he hopes the budget crisis pushes the city to proceed with proposals to streamline the often daunting review process. This time of budget shrinkage, he said, could result in “a culture to expedite projects so time and money are saved.”