Former Vornado Manager Launches Platform To Connect D.C. Developers With Community
While working at Vornado to try to get its 1,100-unit RiverHouse project in Pentagon City approved, Michelle Beaman Chang saw a disconnect between those who supported development and those who had the time and motivation to sit through public hearings to voice their opinions.
Chang last year founded Imby Community, an online platform aimed at connecting developers with the people affected by their projects to get a better sense of public attitudes and improve the dialogue. After completing a pilot with Ditto Residential, Imby Community last month launched a beta product in four neighborhoods: Shaw, Tenleytown, NoMa and Deanwood.
"The way I had conceived of Imby Community was the zoning process; the land entitlement process is opaque and inefficient and not enticing except for people motivated to participate," Chang said. "They’re usually motivated by anti-development feeling, and they also have a lot of time to devote to the process and don’t represent the majority of people."
The name of the platform, standing for In My Back Yard, is a play on the term NIMBY used for people who oppose development. Chang said she sees a "silent majority" of people who want new housing and amenities in their neighborhood. That sentiment has also led to the rise of "YIMBY" groups across the country.
On the platform, Chang aggregated information on individual developments for community members to see what is planned in their neighborhood. They can then leave feedback on specific projects or general comments on the neighborhood and the city. Her one full-time employee, Cedric Diakabana, is the director of community and partnerships, and she has three part-time employees who work on tech, marketing and research.
The platform is free to use for neighbors, and Chang hopes to build up enough of a user base that developers will pay to see the comments and engage with the community about their project.
She has met with over a dozen developers and is working to close deals on new partnerships. For Imby Community's pilot program, she worked with Ditto Residential on its 126-unit Parcel 42 project in Shaw. Chang used to work at Vornado with Toby Millman, whom Ditto brought on last year as president.
The Parcel 42 project had already been approved, so Ditto used Imby Community to engage residents about what type of retail they would like to see in the project's 8K SF of ground-floor space.
"It was interesting and helpful to understand what do people who live in that neighborhood want when it comes to retail uses," Ditto CEO Martin Ditto said. "In some cases, it confirmed our existing thoughts and in other cases we were like, 'Oh interesting, that's something we didn't think of.'"
Ditto compared Imby Community to OurRFP, a process the District uses to engage the public on city-owned parcels that it is putting out for development from the beginning of the process. He said Imby Community could serve that function for privately owned parcels, and he is considering using it for Ditto's future D.C. projects.
“Clearly, there’s a need for this type of engagement,” Ditto said. “That’s why the mayor came out with OurRFP for the city parcels. For private parcels, if the only method to get information is through statistically insignificant sources, most developers anecdotally ask people what they think, not using a sophisticated data collection system. I think that is what has been helpful and useful and where value can be added.”
Chang, who worked in development for 15 years at multiple companies before starting Imby Community, raised $100K in an initial friends and family seed funding round. She said she has made the strategic decision to bootstrap since then and not take outside investment in the company. She participated in startup incubator Seed Spot last year, and in May she spoke at D.C.'s InnoMAYtion entrepreneurship event.
Developments in D.C. have increasingly been delayed in recent years by opposition groups in the community, and Chang hopes improving the discourse can help alleviate delays. She estimates the delays have cost developers tens of millions of dollars, adding risk to the development process and forcing costs to be passed onto the public with higher rents and housing costs.
“We have our focus on pre-development in terms of reducing costs from not only delays, but also the unknown issues relating to engaging the community around the development process,” Chang said. “By bridging the conversation between community and developers early and nonconfrontationally, we can better manage and mitigate that pre-development risk and provide a better known idea of whether it’s going to take six or nine or 12 months or two years to finalize a development proposal.”
After the four-neighborhood beta, Chang plans to expand to double Imby Community's reach by the end of this year. By next year, she hopes to spread the platform across the District, followed by the suburban jurisdictions. She then envisions bringing the platform to other cities.
“I hope to expand it nationally, but we’re laser-focused on providing value in D.C.,” Chang said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to connect two groups that are really struggling with this conversation.”