Local zoning codes tend to be a little complicated. So when somebody wants to use a zoning code to figure something out — a developer trying to figure out where they can build, or a city leader who wants to understand what the impacts of a policy change would be — it can take a lot of work.
It’s exactly the kind of complicated process that can benefit from dynamic, digital technology.
There’s a startup in California, about a year old, trying to apply that ethos to zoning. So far, it’s digitized the zoning codes of 17 cities, including Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, generating interactive maps that users can customize with requests to see only certain kinds of zones, federally designated “opportunity zones” and other features.
And because idevelop.city’s customers are “generators of product” like real estate developers, it doesn’t charge cities for the digitization or to use the software.
Basically, the company wants to help customers figure out where they’re able to do what, and cities could benefit from that work. One reason is because cities dedicate staff time to answering those kinds of questions from developers.
“People are sitting [in government offices] for two, three, four, five hours just to ask a simple question,” said Stas Alexandrov, the company’s CEO.
It can get even worse than that. Alexandrov said often, a planning department can take multiple weeks to answer a request.
Ideally, idevelop.city wants to be the place those people would go to answer their own questions and see a bunch of other stuff they wouldn’t get in a government office, like what other establishments are in the neighborhood.
But in the future, the company might consider building tech for cities to offer to developers as well, as a digital service in place of or in addition to their customer service desks.
“We’d love to be a chatbot,” said Andrew Barnes, idevelop.city’s vice president of strategy and growth. “The only thing precluding us from doing that is the long sales cycles in government.”
Then there’s the policy side of the equation. Idevelop.city has worked with a city — it isn’t ready to say which one — to help understand how it can improve its policies on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or secondary housing units on existing lots. Especially as housing prices have sharply risen in urban areas in recent years, many have started looking at ADUs as a means to increase housing stock without needing to take on huge new development projects.
The city in question had designated a certain number of ADUs that it would allow. But by examining the zoning codes in its tools, idevelop.city was able to show that those codes effectively allowed far fewer than the number the city had in mind. Using its tools, the company was able to give the city insight into how many more ADUs it could have under different policies.
“You’ve got to be able to see what it is you think you’re solving for,” Barnes said.
Another piece of the software is its 3-D rendering generator, which can offer a view of what a single parcel would look like if it were changed, or it can render miles and miles of city to show how a development might alter a skyline or view — a consideration not uncommon in urban development discussions.
And finally, idevelop.city offers users a quick way to reach city planners. Clicking on a parcel, a user can generate an email to a planner and reference the right number, then send the message through the software.