Gimme Shelter with Daniel Gehman: Sounds Crazy, but It Just Might Work

Like almost every other facet of development, the protracted process of obtaining project approval is not for beginners or the faint of heart.

“There’s no by-right development in Los Angeles.” I’ve both heard and experienced this notion enough in the last decade to believe there’s really something to it. Every development, it seems, requires a protracted process of submittals, meetings, revisions, more meetings, community outreach strategizing, revisions, and maybe a few more meetings for good measure. The benefit of all this is that we become acquainted with the decision-makers, which at least leads to more pleasant and familiar working relationships, if not actually to speedier approvals.

I’ve noticed a new phenomenon afoot since we’ve begun to scratch and claw our way out of the recent second dark ages, which I’m going to dub “There’s no by-code development.” Okay, this language may be a little strong, but that’s the nature of slogans.

Podium-style construction, with the maximum allowed number of wood stories stacked over a concrete deck, is a fairly complicated undertaking, just on the face of it. Even in the best of times, it was challenging to get them to “work” from a pro forma perspective. This led design teams to really stretch, pull, bend, interpret and manipulate the building code (and their own creativity) as far as could be imagined to craft a really sophisticated solution. Actually, virtually all of the recent projects on which I’ve worked went beyond a mere stretch, and necessitated modifications to building codes, fire requirements, zoning or specific plan rules, or all of the above. Now, with the contracted economy making successful solutions more elusive than ever before, “playing” with the codes appears to have become a new baseline.

Denser, cheaper, faster—these are values for large multifamily infill developments with which we are all familiar. It feels like our current pursuit of these (along with firmness, commodity and delight, of course) leads us into consistent conflict with the rules. Consequently, together with our clients, we reach further and dig deeper to conjure unique contextual solutions that, with persistence and persuasion, can be found to be tenable, and therefore approvable.

Like almost every other facet of development, this process is not for beginners or the faint of heart, but it does feel like staying one step ahead of the codes, even as they evolve, and the approving authorities, is the new normal.

Feels like being back in school; and that’s a good thing.

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