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.)
"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
And if a certain amount of inflexibility occurs, that may be understandable, given the sheer volume of cases they deal with. The Bureau of Sanitation's Bond says his agency regulates all 10,000 food-service establishments in the city. And that agency is just a small cog in a giant machine.
Still, there are times when restaurateurs feel as if they're caught in some kind of Kafkaesque comedy. Bigelow says that one time, the plumbing inspector made her go to the industrial waste unit of the Department of Public Works to get approval for the restaurant's decorative water wall. ("I printed out the definition of 'industrial waste' and said, 'What part of this is industrial waste?' They finally begrudgingly said they didn't care about the water wall.")
Another time, the city insisted that the restaurant, in the heart of downtown, was located on top of a landfill. After much time and energy, she was able to prove that there had never been a landfill underneath the restaurant.
There were more last-minute issues: fire safety, plumbing and electrical. But what pushed the situation to the point of absurdity in her eyes was a health department inspector's demand that she tear out an already completed bathroom because, after eyeballing the dark-brown tiles, the inspector decided they didn't have the required reflectivity ratio, meaning a health inspector might not be able to tell whether they were clean enough. To avoid wrecking the bathroom, Bigelow had to remodel a bathroom on another floor of the building for the staff to use.
"How can a government agency pick your color scheme?" Bigelow asks.