The City of L.A. Has Created a Digital Treasure Trove for Urbanists

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I’m not sure how long it takes, but very soon after labor-saving technology arrives it’s hard to imagine life without it. Do you remember how quickly phone books and Thomas Guides disappeared?

Today, Mayor Garcetti announced that building permits dating back to 1905 would be posted online (the original Certificate of Occupancy for LAmag.com headquarters is above) and I’m so excited. Until now, researching the history of a building through construction records required not only a trip downtown to the Department of Building and Safety, but you had to take a class from city staff in how to locate permits. After digging through the old steel cabinets for files that may or may not exist you had to wait for one of the ancient beige microfilm readers to open up. Those dirty monsters loved to jam up or eat film off the reels, but if you were lucky you might find some clue that would help you understand the history of the place you were exploring. Each permit was on a different reel; so it was often hours of wash, rinse, repeat.

This new system digitizes–am I reading this press release right?–“13 million records dating from 1905 to the present.” Although the Web site’s existence is news, I’ve been inadvertently enjoying something of an exclusive sneak peek. I stumbled upon the resource last month and felt like I was hacking through some internal firewall. Historian friends didn’t believe me, but this 24-hour at-home access is for real. The city says that the primary users will include homeowners, contractors, architects, engineers, escrow agencies, banks, and permit expediters, but anybody curious about the history of their own house can now find out who designed it, who built it, out of what, and when each stage of work began.

Access to Online Building Records is from LADBS.org under the “Online Services” tab, or directly at http://ladbsdoc.lacity.org/idispublic. Records can be retrieved by address, legal description, County Assessor Parcel Number, or document number.

“This system cuts red tape and improves customer service for builders, developers, and everyday Angelenos,” says Garcetti. “Making L.A. more attractive to key investments that create jobs.” And it makes the Department of Building and Safety more attractive to people like me, who may never have to visit it again. Thanks, Eric!