by Lenny Pierce, Research Analyst
Traditionally, having your opinions on a local real estate development project heard means sacrificing your weeknight to a lengthy town hall meeting, an investment that few are able to make due to family and/or professional commitments. The consistent result of this dynamic is that only a handful of voices are heard at said meetings and the projects are altered according to those voices alone. Fortunately, this process may be getting a much needed makeover in the Boston area thanks to Karin Brandt’s coUrbanize, an online civic engagement platform where developers can converse directly with those living near ongoing real estate projects through every stage of their development. The platform may be building a crucial bridge between developer and resident and hosting a dialogue that no longer requires a walk to town hall just to be a part of.
Every development CoUrbanize currently has a partnership with has their own profile under the site’s Projects section. Under each project’s profile, interested parties can learn the quantitative facts of each development such as square footage, scheduled completion date and intended use, as well as more colorful details such as each project’s projected economic impact in the area.
CoUrbanize also provides visualizations of the ongoing projects in the form of slideshows of architectural renderings as well as bird’s-eye-view schematics detailing the project’s effect on factors such as traffic, shadows, and wind in the surrounding area.
The trademark of coUrbanize is their community forum, where interested parties can post comments about the projects in their community. And this isn’t the one sided dialogue that comes to mind when one thinks of internet message boards–representatives from developers are highly attentive to the comment threads, sometimes responding within a matter of hours. One example of this dynamic exists in Legatt McCall’s responsiveness to the residents of East Cambridge on coUrbanize’s forum for the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse renovation at 40 Thorndike Street. Here, the developer has been especially quick to respond to posts regarding the long awaited redevelopment of the brutalist court house which will soon be a mixed-use property including 430,000 sq. ft. of office/R&D space and 24 apartments.
We caught up with coUrbanize founder Karin Brandt to discuss the impact her site is having on the relationship between urban developments and those most intimately affected by them.
The story so often heard behind the formation of a start up is that you saw a need–be it a frustrating absence of professional service, or the lack of a specific item for a specific problem that was worth catering to. What was the need that you thought coUrbanize could address?
I always tell people that if you’ve been to a public meeting or if you’ve seen Parks and Recreation, then you know the problem coUrbanize addresses. Our founding team has a background in city planning and building technology. We went to many public meetings and saw the problems that developers and community members face with development review.
Neighborhoods are decided at the meetings–what gets built and ultimately, for whom. Because meetings are held on weekday nights and often last many hours, the process naturally draws out the vocal minority. Second, the facts about projects are very difficult to understand, especially traffic studies and engineering reports.
With coUrbanize, developers can distribute project information and gather online feedback so everybody has the facts and can easily participate. For developers, this reduces the costly delays that come from misinformation and misunderstandings and helps build a stronger relationship with the community.
Before coUrbanize, how would somebody interested in a development going on in their neighborhood access information regarding it? What, in your view, are the limitations of this traditional approach?
Traditionally, community members can learn about proposed development and weigh in at public meetings that are held on weekday evenings. Sometimes these meetings last for hours, which means that many residents with young children, multiple jobs and busy lives are not able to participate and their voices are left out. Technology provides opportunities to share information ahead of meetings to help more residents participate, which means the in-person conversations can be focused on the topics that matter the most.
Do you think that coUrbanize allows for a wider range of opinions to be heard with respect to a specific development than might be heard in a town hall meeting?
Our customers report that they are able to engage broader audiences through coUrbanize–often residents who haven’t shown up to meetings first, learn about projects online and then get involved in the development process. We also see that people, who may not stand up to comment at public meetings, go home afterwards and provide comments online.
CoUrbanize’s “sweet spot” has been described as helping developers and governments communicate issues that are hard to understand and visualize. What are some examples of issues that the public traditionally finds hard to understand?
One of the problems with development that we always hear from developers and communities is that the project impacts are hard to understand. Discussions around traffic, parking, shadows, and wind can be very emotional rather than fact-based. Our Data Scientist, David Quinn, worked with developers, architects and engineers to create map-based visualizations that help residents easily understand how a project will impact their street.
Development projects are long lasting and helping people visualize the process from initial design to approval to construction completion is important. Developers use our “Timeline” feature to document the steps in the process and help people understand what’s coming next.
Your first partnership was not actually with a real estate developer, but with Hubway, Boston’s bike share program. Are there other businesses that could have fruitful partnerships with coUrbanize that aren’t actually real estate development groups?
We really enjoyed working with Boston Bikes on their Hubway expansion. Since that partnership, we’ve worked on projects with Cambridge and Boston, and will be starting a project with the Town of Ashland. In some cases the city uses coUrbanize to manage real estate development and in others, the city planners use coUrbanize to gather local input on their proposed projects.
Some of our newest partnerships are helping customers gather community input on what types of retail and commercial space people would like in local storefronts. The increase of banks, or bankification, in many urban centers has resulted in communities calling for more active street-level storefronts. We’re looking forward to more ways coUrbanize can help residents connect with development to help create better cities.
CoUrbanize currently cover four regions–Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Devens–but Brandt aims to extend that roster extensively into the suburbs. Brandt says that suburban communities with smaller planning departments can use coUrbanize to help manage the permitting process. Furthermore, seeing as Boston isn’t the only place in the world where people take interest in the building going up next door, Brandt is hopeful that the success of this platform in Boston can be replicated in other major cities. “We’re looking forward to expanding coUrbanize into new market’s this year” Brandt says. “Development is not just difficult in Boston–many cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. face the same challenges.” Active community members of the nation–you may be getting your weeknights back.
Stay tuned to CBRE New England’s blog for updates on coUrbanize’s expansion and check out all of their active and completed projects so far at courbanize.com/projects.