After 15 years as an urban design consultant helping cities achieve their economic development goals, Ian Ross realized that cities needed a better way to communicate those goals with investors, developers, and brokers. “There was a great deficiency,” Ross says.
Last September, Ross launched OppSites, an Oakland, California–based company that provides an online tool to connect investors and developers with underexposed development opportunities. “When cities do planning work and create a vision for their future, they raise the economic potential in a property” by increasing the development capacity, says Ross, chief executive officer and cofounder of OppSites. But that potential can go unrealized if investors and developers do not know about it, he adds.
More than 180 cities nationwide are adding districts or public or privately owned properties to the site that they want to see redeveloped, and 2,000 real estate developers used OppSites in May, Ross says.
San Francisco supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset district on the San Francisco’s west side, recently began posting local sites on OppSites.
Her district’s residents historically are less receptive to development in their neighborhood, she says. But a recent site analysis of the Sunset district revealed that zoning would allow for about 1,000 more housing units along its transit and commercial corridors.
Eighty to 90 percent of the district would remain untouched, Tang says. “You’re just having opportunities where height limits already allow for taller buildings,” she says.
Tang is using OppSites to communicate the development potential “to people and companies who want to invest in developing small scale in our neighborhood,” she says.
“In plugging in some of our information about our district [and] what opportunity sites there are, we hope that we can share that information with as many people as possible,” Tang says. “Some people may not realize that just because there isn’t a for-sale sign on a building, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an opportunity.”
Not all properties posted on the site are for sale, Ross adds. “We’re helping to shine a spotlight on sites that can be redeveloped,” he says.
The city of Oakland also is using OppSites, where it posted some of its recently completed specific and area plans. The plans detail how land can be used in certain areas.
It allows Oakland “to educate, market, and demonstrate the city’s efforts in terms of showing off our opportunity sites and creating interest for those sites,” says Aliza Gallo, the city’s economic development manager.
“We really like the model for allowing a way for the city to market opportunities [on] a national scale,” she says.
Also in the Bay Area, Deborah Acosta, the chief innovation officer for the East Bay city of San Leandro, is using OppSites. She says the technology helps “get the word out” about a city’s properties “in an effective visual way.”
“It’s very difficult for cities to convey the vision they have for particular areas via a [document],” she says.
OppSites allows users to view a property and the surrounding area via Google maps. “You can walk down the street without leaving your office,” Acosta says. “That’s not something that can be done on a static document.”
In addition, users can see if the environmental impact report is in place and whether there is community and political support for development, she says.
Acosta is just beginning to use the site, she says, but plans to focus on using it to help revitalize San Leandro’s industrial market.
It is free for cities to post and view properties and developers to look at sites on OppSites. Cities pay a fee to e-mail targeted marketing campaigns about their sites to the website’s database of real estate developers, investors, and brokers. Developers can pay to receive updates when a city and site match their criteria, such as location or property type.
In June, OppSites formed a partnership with the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), which will give its nearly 54,000 U.S. members a discounted price for OppSites’ premium service.
“We see this as a tool that will be helpful to our members both in the public sector and the private sector in promoting and finding sites,” says Cynthia Stewart, the Washington, D.C.–based staff vice president of community development for ICSC, a global trade association for the retail industry. Its members include shopping center owners and developers, land use attorneys, architects, mayors, and chambers of commerce.
“It’s a real way for small-town cities and urban cities with underserved urban markets to get those sites in front of developers. They aren’t [always] the obvious sites,” Stewart says.
It also can benefit developers by providing upfront information about a site.
“Who wants to have to participate in a battle to get zoning approved when a city has said, ‘We’ve identified this site, we want to see it redeveloped—it’s either already been rezoned or we’re willing to rezone it,’ ” Stewart says.
Furthermore, OppSites is an alternative to the traditional methods of promoting and finding sites, such as attending industry conferences or city-hosted retail tours.
“Here, people can see the whole country and cherry-pick different cities they’re interested in,” Stewart says. “They don’t have to wait for an event or go visit a city to check some of these sites out.”