New initiative aims to help small businesses with L.A. permitting burdens

Before chef Jon Shook could open his restaurant, Animal, in 2008, he had one task to complete: obtain a beer and wine license. But because of Los Angeles City Hall’s complex permitting process, getting the license took nearly a year and $30,000 in expediting fees.

“We had the place ready to go,” Shook said. “But, that’s nine months of rent I had to pay.”

Shook is one of many Los Angeles small-business owners — particularly restaurateurs — who say they are burdened by the city’s procedures for opening a new establishment or renewing a conditional use permit.

A conditional use permit, which businesses need to obtain a liquor license, can take a year to obtain or renew. One big complaint: Business owners have to go through several departments that don’t work seamlessly with one another. 

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell wants to expedite conditional use permit renewals for existing restaurants and make them more affordable. O’Farrell in June introduced a plan that would, among other things, assign a dedicated case manager for small businesses and require all departments to work together.

O’Farrell, who presides over neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Atwater Village, Silver Lake and Echo Park, introduced the initiative because businesses are laying off employees or giving up before they formally open.

“The small-business community has been really begging for help on many levels,” he said.

There’s a general misunderstanding about the challenges that small businesses face and an indifference in city bureaucracy with helping them all, O’Farrell said.

“We’re talking oftentimes about someone who has a shop on the corner or saved up for a career their whole life because opening a restaurant is their dream, but can’t get a response from City Hall,” he said. “We need a one-stop shop. We need someone to just sit with them for a few minutes with a checklist to let them know what they need, the requirements and the timeline to expect.”

Shook operates six  of L.A.’s hottest restaurants with business partner Vinny Dotolo, including Trois Familia, Trois Mec and Son of a Gun. He said as businesses move forward and start growing, there needs to be a faster renewal process in place for existing businesses. If a business wants to renew a permit, the owner must go through the process as if the business were a new restaurant.

“If you have already gone through the procedures, there should be some kind of acknowledgment that you have a record of good history,” Shook said. “Every time we’ve gone to open a restaurant, it’s starting from ground one.”

Seven years ago, restaurants grappled with the same challenging system of codes, permits and inspections that often resulted in contradictory demands from agencies or inspectors.

In 2010, the city assigned case managers to aspiring restaurateurs and formed a Restaurant and Hospitality Express program, an online tool to streamline the approval process through multiple agencies. It coordinates the inspectors and troubleshoots issues, said David Lara, spokesman for the L.A. Department of Building and Safety.

“Our service is very well suited for anyone that wants to open up a service in L.A.,” he said. “This type of program falls in sync with the councilman’s initiative.”

Lara said the claims of the slow permitting process are “not completely accurate,” at least in the Department of Building and Safety.

However, because there are so many different departments to go through, it becomes a convoluted process, said Tricia La Belle, owner of Boardner’s in Hollywood.

La Belle said it took 16 months to open her second restaurant, Bon Vivant, in Atwater Village.

Although the building was constructed in the 1940s and already zoned for restaurant, retail and commercial use, the need for additional parking required a change-of-use permit, which delayed the restaurant’s opening.

“The biggest issue I have is in the zoning code for commercial property. It’s entitled for restaurant, retail and office use, but when you go from retail space to a restaurant, it triggers a change of use,” she said. “You are almost going through a whole new process. One of the biggest problems we have with restaurants — and they fail to get open — is the change of use.”

There have been instances where applicants aren’t notified that they need additional parking until later in the process, which could mean their project gets kicked back to the Planning Department, halted or scrapped altogether because of the change-of-use requirement, city officials said.

“It’s not getting any easier,” La Belle said. “When I speak with expeditors and attorneys that are still helping out business owners, they said it’s been getting worse.”

The Department of Building and Safety has done a good job, but what hasn’t changed much is wrangling in other departments and agencies, said Eddie Navarette, chief consultant for FE Design and Consulting, who works with businesses to navigate the red tape at City Hall.

“Hopefully, the city of L.A. will be open to hearing feedback from organizations dealing with these types of problems with restaurants,” Navarette said.

“These initiatives are on the right track,” he said. “I feel they put some of [the restaurants’ concerns] in there, which is really great.”

The provisions of the initiative, contained in a series of motions made by O’Farrell, have been seconded by the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. If approved by the City Council, O’Farrell intends to roll out the provisions by the end of the year.

“Behind every empty storefront, there’s a story,” O’Farrell said. “It could be someone has been waiting for months to get there.”

business@latimes.com

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