Our Building Permit Fiasco with the City of Santa Monica

First of all, I want to say that the City of Santa Monica is a beautiful place with probably some of the best weather I have ever witnessed in my life, especially since I have been living in either the valley and/or the inland empire for over 10 years. So I have been fantasizing of the idea of some day living in this great beach town. You cannot beat the combination of the weather, the diverse stores and restaurants, quick access to the sandy beach, the night life, the architecture, and so forth.

However, attempting to develop in this town can be a nightmare to inexperienced builders. As first time condo developers, we decided to purchase this incredible parcel of land off of 11th St. & Broadway Ave. The actual site neighbors a two-story office building to the north and a 3 story condominium structure to the south. The existing structure on the site has a historic single family residence that is in very poor condition. Our original intent was to demolish the existing structure and to design/build 6-unit condominiums on the site.  However, this simple goal turned into a very long roller coaster ride with the building department at the City.

At the purchasing stages of this parcel of land, we had intelligently (so we thought) talked to Planner from the City, no names will be mentioned, and he informed us that the zone of our site had a 3 story height limitation similar to the adjacent building to our south. This was a major selling point because it would allow us to design larger units for a higher market price.  In addition, he also informed us that it would take usually a minimum of 15 months before we could obtain the building permits.  So going into this, we knew it would be a lengthy process, but for some reason we hoped that we could expedite it.

Shortly after the purchase of the house, our team went into design mode and we prepared initial plans for the non-mandatory Pre-Submittal Review, where both a plan checker from the Planning Department and the Building & Safety Department reviewed the schematic drawings to see if they posed any significant issues prior to the Plan Check Review.  This phase alone was an indication of how bumpy of a path we had in front of us.

PRE-SUBMITTAL REVIEW
During the Pre-Submittal Review, we were informed that for whatever reason, our R3 zoning had changed without us being informed.  In fact, we were no longer allowed to build a 3-story structure like had previously been informed by the City planner prior to the purchase of the property.  This was the very first blow to our young development experience.  There of course, were other issues that we had to address, but the height limitation was the other major concern as a result of this review process.  It is just odd, how a City can just change the zoning ordinance at will without proper notification to those property owners that may be affected.

ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW BOARD
After we had modified our drawings and plans per the Pre-Submittal Review board’s comments, we had to present our design and project to the Architectural Review Board, which meets only twice a month at the City Hall Council Chamber.  This is a public hearing in front of a panel that consists of architects, landscape architect and planners.  Prior to the hearing, proper written notification has to be made to all the neighbors and a sign needs to be placed on the project site with the pertinent hearing date and location information.

During the review, the applicant is required to present all the floor plans, site plan, landscape plan, elevations, neighborhood profile, perspectives, 3D renderings, material board and in some cases an actual physical model if the proposed building is over a certain square footage, however, this was not necessary for us.

We presented our project to the committee and they had a chance to discuss what they liked and disliked about the project.  As a result of our first review, they concluded that we needed to add more glass to the facades to make them look more appealing.  Our second review, pleased the panel but we once again needed to make minor changes by adding vegetation to the rear of the property that is adjacent to the alley.  However, they gave us a partial approval so that we did not have to present the project again at another public hearing, but instead only get a staff approval for the minor revision.  This process was stressful because the review is all subjective to what the panel thinks.  It does not really consider building code issues, only aesthetics.  The problem with this review board phase, is that the building will most likely change due to consultants recommendations (structural, MEP, etc.) and/or during the in depth Plan Check Review, which sees if the building proposal is in compliance with all zoning ordinances and building codes.

PLAN CHECK REVIEW
The Plan Check Review is by far the most grueling process of them all.  This is process consists of submitting full sets of drawings to all the departments (Planning, Building & Safety, MEP, Public Works, Transportation, Landscape, Fire, & Green Building) and paying the expensive plan check fees (about $16,000 for this project).  When so many different pairs of eyes review a set of plans, there is a good chance that there will be comments from some of the plan checkers.  And sometimes an area that needs to be changed for one department’s approval will have a direct affect on another departments requirement.  For example, we had to provide a bigger maintenance clearance area at there rear of the building where the electrical meters are located to meet MEP’s approval, but then that took away space from both the last unit’s patio space, which affected Planning’s minimum outdoor space requirement for that unit and there was very little wiggle room since the ramp to the subterranean garage was adjacent to it.

After months of revising and going back and forth with the plan checkers we finally got approvals from all the plan checkers.  However, there were still many outstanding fees, forms, and other documents that a few departments needed before they were allowed to sign off on the project.  The Public Works Department required additional forms and fees such as the urban runoff & water mitigation worksheets (about $10,000 water fees), construction waste & recycling forms with a $30,000 deposit, and the final tract map (discussed in the next section) for their approval. 

The Planning Department also had additional requirements such as the arts community development fee, condominium fees, and the deed restrictions.  In addition, our planner really gave us a scare because in the City of Santa Monica, there is a construction radius rule that they implement.  This rule basically prevents more than one construction project within a 500′ radius of occurring at the same time, so if one of our nearby neighbors has a current building permit at the same time we’d like to obtain one, we would have to wait at least till that project is finished or a minimum of 12 months before we’d be allowed to obtain the building permits.  The idea of the rule is to reduce the construction noise for neighbors, but it could financially ruin a small developer if caught in this predicament.  Unfortunately, there was a nearby neighbor that was also in the process of pulling permits so our planner notified us about their intentions and suggested we act fast before we lose a whole year on the construction start date.

Lastly, like most Plan Check’s, the City of Santa Monica’s plan check has a one year expiration.  If EVERYTHING, is not completed by this time, then you will be forced into a brand new plan check application.  We know this first hand, because while we did have all the drawings and most of the forms complete and approved, we had failed to get all the signatures and wet stamps on the final tract map before the expiration date.  The City refused to grant us an extension.  This, as you can imagine, led to more costs and further rounds of plan checks based off the new 2010 California Building Code.  Our 1st plan check review was based off the previous 2007 code since our drawings and application were submitted before the release of the newer building codes.  This was yet another hurdle we were forced to jump over.

FINAL TRACT MAP
Before the final tract map can be produced to the City of Santa Monica, a tentative map has to be approved, which was submitted before the Plan Check Review process.  The tentative map basically shows the building footprint on the parcel with some key elevation points and dimensions.  However, the final map is much more detailed and needs to be prepared by a surveyor.  Additionally, it also has the signature page, where many different people are required to sign and wet stamp the document.

First, the Los Angeles County Public Works needs to approve the final tract map.  If no revisions need to be made to the documents, they will ask for a final copy to printed on mylar paper.  They take the mylar copies to sign and wet stamp and send it off to the City of Santa Monica for their signatures and wet stamps.  When the City receives the mylars, they need to pass it at their City Council meeting, which again is only held twice a month.  After the Council has approved the final tract map, it gets signed by the respective City members and sent back to the County for filing with of course another filing fee.  The County finally confirms with the City’s Public Works division that it has been filed and they are then ready to sign off on the final tract map.

DEMOLITION PERMIT
The City of Santa Monica, unlike other jurisdictions, does not allow an owner or contractor to pull a demo permit without having a building permit concurrently.  They do not want a building to be demolished without an approved proposed new building on the site.  While this may be good in theory, it can delay the construction start time.  And like the building permit, the demolition permit also has a one year expiration, so there is no time to waste.

For this project, we were required to have the existing 1914 single family home to be reviewed for it’s approved demolition since it was considered a historic building.  Since we were uncertain if the City would allow us to tear down the house, we applied for the demolition permit in the early phases so that we would know whether or not we’d be able to move forward with the our original plans.  The demolition permit fee was $1,000 and similar to the plan check review, expired in one-year.  Like the plan check review, we ended up reapplying since we had not completed everything within that year time frame.  For the review process, we were required to submit photos and a site plan of the existing structure.  After 2-3 weeks, they informed us that the building would be allowed to be demolished and we proceeded forward with our construction drawings for the plan check review.

After the plan check and the final tract map were approved, we were required to fill out a few more forms and pay our outstanding fees.  The forms we needed to complete were the SCAQMD (South Coast Air Quality Management District), asbestos removal form, rodent inspection/removal form, utility sign offs and the public works sign offs.   Once these were completed we had to pay our building permit fees (over $35,000) and we finally were issued both our demolition and building permits for our condominium project.

PERSONAL OVERVIEW
In short, the City of Santa Monica is not a builder friendly place.  There are many hoops to go through, very expensive fees to pay and many unsympathetic employees that work at the building/planning department.  The last part is the part that really upsets me because after paying all their expensive fees and being very patient during their plan check process at least you’d expect some more respect and willingness to help you meet your project goals.  Instead you are greeted with a machine, you take a number and the people at the counter only see you as a number on their queue list.  I’ve been there many times and I’ve had very poor experiences majority of the time, but at least we finally obtained our building permits.

 

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About cloghmani3182
An aspiring architect that currently works for L.A. Design Group.

One Response to Our Building Permit Fiasco with the City of Santa Monica

  1. Accelerate Construction Inc. says:

    Very difficult, costly and time-consuming to build or remodel in this City. We have been doing it successfully for many years but many General Contractors prefer to work elsewhere as a result of what you’ve experienced.

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