Traditionally, development has involved heavy face-to-face interactions, from site selection to planning to design to permitting to meetings. The pandemic changed all of that, and developers, as well as the cities and municipalities with which they work, have adapted to keep projects on track.
“The pandemic highlighted the importance of embracing technology to improve customer service for applicants while safeguarding staff and the public,” said Martha Guzman-Hurtado, communications and legislative affairs manager for the city of El Segundo, California. Before the pandemic, she said, all interactions for applications, approvals and permitting were conducted in person. Applicants were required to submit up to five sets of hard copy plans to allow each department to review.At the onset of the pandemic, all those hard copies had to be quarantined for 24 hours before staff could review. The city thus changed its process to allow applicants to send plans digitally via ShareFile, Dropbox and similar applications. The change made it simpler to share the plans with various departments, and it significantly cut down on paper. The city also started allowing online fee payments. “The pandemic allowed the city to quickly pivot to a digital environment that resulted in improved and more efficient operations,” she said. Guzman-Hurtado believes the changes will last. “We have experienced major advantages of being able to offer our development services in a digital, more convenient environment. Before the pandemic, applicants were limited to conducting business Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. when city hall was physically open to the public. During the pandemic, when we transitioned to an online and digital environment, interactions with applicants moved to a 24/7 cycle, allowing for greater interaction with staff. ”The Woodmont Co. president of brokerage services Grant Gary is seeing delays in jurisdictions that still rely heavily on paper transmittals for entitlements, permitting and plan reviews. But according to Guzman-Hurtado, all projects have moved forward as planned in El Segundo.“There have been no delays in inspections by city inspection staff during the pandemic,” she said.
In the fall, the city plans to introduce an online system so applicants can upload plans and documents through a website rather than transmit through third parties like Dropbox. “The digital environment is the new normal, and we are continuing to build upon our online services,” said Guzman-Hurtado. “A post-pandemic world will be a hybrid of in-person interactions and a digital customer experience to allow greater ease in the application, approvals and permitting process.” She also notes reduced traffic to city hall, eliminating long drives for some applicants and cost savings on printing for applicants.
Making the case for developments to cities and tenants NewMark Merrill president and CEO Sandy Sigal says technology, specifically location analytics data, can help him communicate with cities during the entitlement process. “Technology and my ability to go to cities and demonstrate the draw of certain tenants and how that benefits the community and where those customers come from and how I am servicing their communities when I open a store I think are very important.”
Location analytics also helps him make the case for a development to those tenants, as at a project that’s awaiting approval from the city of Rialto, California. “We have a tenant mix that we have crafted, and we are able to demonstrate to those tenants why that trade area is a good fit for their usage based on past performance,” said Sigal. And a tenant that is a good fit is valuable to other stakeholders needed to get a development out of the ground: “I need a lender who is going to go along with the plan, I need investors who will go along with the plan, and I need a city who is going to go along with the plan — not just me and the tenants.”
Technology also helps the bottom line, he says. “The ability to use technology to effectively share documents, share onsite what is going on in real time in monitoring the construction … eventually will impact pricing in a very positive direction for us, which makes things easier to build and more affordable for our tenants.”
According to Sigal, “We think we are really good at knowing what good sites are, and we think we are really good at knowing what is going on because we have done it forever. But the reality is our instincts are often wrong, and technology has solved that problem. So it looks as though technology is here to stay, but it can’t yet solve for the entire development process. During the pandemic, Woodmont had onsite teams do virtual walk-throughs for several projects, and at first, it seemed pretty efficient. “As things started to progress, we realized that there was a lot that was missed,” Gary said. Having eyes directly on the project “has still proven to be the more effective way as it relates to truly punching out and closing out the completion of a building,” he said.
“That’s not to say that there may not be an opportunity for that digital element and real-time video element, but I think it would need to be more on a limited scope”.
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