Navigating through government processes have never been particularly easy and coupled with a pandemic certainly does not make it easier. Most governments went into immediate triage mode, as they would with any natural disaster; scrambling to address stay-at-home orders, business closures, determining essential from nonessential industries, and even when and where masks or other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are required. These all became the issues du jour.
Given the unprecedented scale and multi-faceted nature of COVID-19, the pandemic has created the need to re-evaluate procedures and government processes in light of the current normal.
Redefining Public Hearings: Virtual vs. In-Person
Matters required to go through a public hearing process were initially cancelled. Most governments immediately analyzed how to comply with their municipal regulations as well as the fundamental constitutional opportunity afforded to the public to be heard. All this while trying to understand how a virtual hearing could actually be performed and on what platform, how municipal staff would continue to work from home, and how the decision makers, aka board members and elected officials, would continue to participate in this new environment. For jurisdictions with advanced technological systems in place like electronic application submittals and review platforms it was much easier to provide, as real time as possible, information to applicants and the public alike. However, for those still relying on paper as the main form of transmittal it was far more difficult to thoughtfully move through the morass that is the processing of a public hearing process in a remote world.
Re-Evaluating Processes in Different Jurisdictions
Not all jurisdictions or applications are created equal. Some jurisdictions re-commenced hearing activity in short order while others that require a longer lead time for advertising, or other procedural requirements have been unable to move these applications forward. In addition, some virtual platforms, like Zoom, have afforded a far larger segment of the public to speak and be heard with pre-recorded messaging done from the comfort of their respective homes not requiring the in-person appearances at city hall. Yet others have argued that limited resources or lack of internet resources render them unable to participate in the process. These issues need to be carefully evaluated by each jurisdiction as they move forward with the processing of public hearing applications.
Also, the time spent in a virtual meeting versus an in-person meeting tends to take much longer as result of not only the technology flow but interrupted service, number of participants in the meeting, transitions from different presenters, etc. This can create additional backlog in an already overcrowded application pool.
Finding Efficiencies in Process
For all matters electronic or not, virtual or in-person, people are at the core of it all, and with people sent home with varying degrees of availability and platforms to perform as they would in an office environment it became more strenuous to process applications. However, in many instances the lack of office distractions coupled with the availability of virtual platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, afforded an opportunity for faster input from municipal staff that previously relied more heavily on email as a main source of communication. In other words, virtual is not necessarily all bad and we can expect some of these forms of meeting and communication to stick long past the end of the pandemic.
New Outlook on Project Programming
The pandemic has not only affected the process in which government works but has also affected project programming disproportionately. Various projects with mixed uses including residential, retail, office and hospitality uses are re-evaluating their distribution of programming as a result. This is not only a short-term reaction but also one with lasting effects to where we believe the market will be post-pandemic. For instance, some have argued that with the vast majority of the workforce working remotely with a significant percentage to likely remain remote, there is a reduced need in office space. Yet others feel that office space may not get smaller at all, just reshaped with larger common areas, conference rooms, open spaces all in an effort to properly socially distance with co-workers. Similarly, with the increase of online retailers, the retail needs of individual projects are being closely monitored to ensure the right mix is provided to serve the respective neighborhoods without oversaturating the market. With so many folks at home there is also a close look at what is offered in individual units and overall projects alike, including co-working space, open spaces and other amenities to ensure working from home and being home for extended periods of time is manageable.
This is also a time where governments are keenly focused on budgets and anticipated shortfalls, reviewing capital improvement projects affiliated with infrastructure, parks and other open spaces as well as the continued needs for affordable and workforce housing. In light of this focus there are unique opportunities to partner with the private sector on public private partnerships (P3′s) that can assist and facilitate in bringing these projects to fruition.
Here in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently said 50 transportation projects, including the I-4 Ultimate project in Orlando, were sped up while there was less traffic during the first months of the pandemic when many businesses were closed. Because the construction industry was deemed an essential business, workers continued making progress on projects.
An Opportunity for Continued Progress
While Miami-Dade steadily inches toward a Phase 2 reopening, and areas throughout the country are looking to resume to some form of normalcy, for now, there will be continued possibilities for change. There’s no question the pandemic has flooded the economy with volatility and uncertainty, but the current health crisis has also opened the doors for a future that could be very different from that of today. The impacts stemming from the pandemic can lead to improvement and reflection, creating opportunities to make the government process the best that it can be while adapting to the changing needs of the real estate market.
*This article was republished with permission from Daily Business Review.