R&J Update – Learning from Los Angeles, Take Two

​This month’s SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research) newsletter looked at what San Francisco can learn from Los Angeles’ success in growing or reinvigorating walkable, transit-oriented districts in a city known for its auto-centric sprawl.  Since SPUR has already interrupted our San Francisco navel gazing, we’ll expand on the theme to look at Los Angeles’ recent “Multiple Approvals Ordinance”, which streamlines the approval process for projects requiring multiple development approvals.  

Like San Francisco’s Planning Code, Los Angeles’ Zoning Code started as a slender document, with 67 pages and “only a handful of discretionary approval processes…with simple and clear decision-maker and appeal hierarchies.”  Over time, the Zoning Code swelled to 600 pages.  The number of required approvals grew and authority to grant them diffused among multiple city bodies and officials.  The requirement to seek multiple, independent approvals, each with its own appeal process created an unnecessarily protracted review process that was burdensome for applicants, confusing to the public, and a drain on staff resources.  

The Multiple Approvals Ordinance’s remedies for the situation are modest:  they do not lower the bar for approvals, reduce public notice requirements, or cut off opportunities for appeal.  Instead, they streamline the process by consolidating approvals with the highest-level official or body with authority over a project.  For example, if a project requires approval by the Zoning Administrator and the Planning Commission, the Planning Commission is empowered to grant all approvals at a single hearing.  This change greatly simplifies the appeal process as well.  With project approvals granted on one date, appeal periods can run concurrently and appeal hearings can similarly be consolidated for hearing before a single authority.  

Because new regulations are often adopted piecemeal, reforms such as the Multiple Approvals Ordinance seem like a logical bit of housekeeping that cities should undertake now and then.  They create a safer and more transparent process for all participants in the development process and allow planners to spend less time pushing paper and more time focused on project merits and planning goals.  They also save cities money.  

In San Francisco, even small projects can face the possibility of six or more approval and appeal hearings before all is said and done.  A project requiring a variance from the Zoning Administrator, a conditional use from the Planning Commission, and an approval from the Historic Preservation Commission would have to go to at least two and possibly three hearings.  These, in turn, could be followed by three separate appeals, one at the Board of Supervisors and the other two at the Board of Appeals.  There could also be independent CEQA or subdivision map appeals at the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.  

With such a notoriously convoluted approval process and a Planning Code that numbers some 1,900 pages, San Francisco seems ripe for reform.  However, reform is hard to achieve over the opposition of those who relish the power to inflict death by a thousand hearings, or who perceive a plot at work behind even the most commonsense reform.  For example, former supervisor Fiona Ma’s efforts to establish clear time frames for CEQA appeals died on the vine.  Years later, there is still no meaningful time limit for categorical exemption appeals. They can come shortly after a Commission approval, which is when they should be decided.  Then again, they can be delayed until a building permit is issued, when the consequences for builders can be dire.  

Change certainly did not come easily in LA.  The Multiple Approvals Ordinance was the product of a multiple-years-long effort, with numerous stakeholder meetings and compromises along the way.  It is but one component of a more far-reaching effort to streamline, modernize and make sense of regulations that have accreted over time.  These types of changes do not come cheaply: the price tag for the Multiple Approvals Ordinance and other zoning reforms will run into the millions.  But LA’s leaders have been willing to invest public funds and political capital to, in the words of LA’s Planning Department, make their city a place where people “are not afraid to invest in new development to better the built environment and grow the local economy.”  

In San Francisco, past efforts to improve process have generally been piecemealed, i.e., they have been focused on single issues brought to the fore by individual supervisors or the Planning Department.  Some have been successful:  Supervisor Wiener’s recent amendments to the City’s preservation rules are an example.  The Planning Department’s efforts to streamline CEQA in certain master-planned areas are another.  Other initiatives, notably discretionary review and CEQA reform, have fallen short of the mark.  

If there is a lesson to be learned from Los Angeles—or from past experience here—it is this:  Delivering meaningful reform of the development process is an all-hands-on-deck exercise that requires an investment of public funds and political leadership that clearly understands and articulates the benefit of curtailing excessive bureaucracy.  Mayor Lee and the Board of Supervisors have been much more focused on economic growth than in the recent past, but for the time being, it seems that development rules are still the third rail of San Francisco politics.

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient. Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein. Reuben & Junius, LLP is a full service real estate law firm. We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.

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