CityGrows Streamlines Permitting to Let Restaurants Open Outdoors
Francesca Billington is a dot.LA editorial intern. She's previously reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. Before joining dot.LA, she was a communications fellow at an environmental science research center in Sri Lanka. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.
These days, L.A. pedestrians share their sidewalks with diners. Restaurants across the city are moving outdoors to adapt to California's restrictions on indoor dining.
CityGrows, a Los Angeles-based startup with a mission to automate government workflow, aims to make the permit process for sidewalk dining a breeze.
Founded in 2015, the company offers self-service software for local governments to speed up and streamline their systems. Through the CityGrows dashboard, governments and businesses can do everything from collecting reservations to processing online payments to issuing permits.
Some municipalities are ditching their old systems and moving online, a massive opportunity to reshape in-person bureaucracies that came to a halt when offices shut down, says CEO Catherine Geanuracos.
It takes about 19 minutes for a business owner to fill-out, receive and print a city of Los Angeles sidewalk permit application. The result of a program launched by CityGrows in late May. As long as the applicant completes the form and agrees to city requirements, a permit is issued immediately.
Switching the process from paper or PDF form to an online application shaves off between 50% to 75% of the time it takes to apply. It also makes the review process much easier, Geanuracos says.
Some governments are even defaulting to approving the permits on an interim basis, in an effort to support local businesses. For permit applications that require changes to a restaurant's insurance policy, cities may accept the application on a provisional basis so the business have to pause operations.
L.A.'s Department of Transportation has already made a lot of progress moving its schedules and systems online. Still, a spokesperson says the pandemic added a level of complexity that CityGrows helped them handle.
"When COVID-19 forced thousands of businesses to close their doors, we saw a need to meet this moment in a rapidfire way," L.A.DOT spokesman Colin Sweeney says. "CityGrows allowed us to stand up a new interdepartmental program within a matter of days — not months."
Santa Monica and West Hollywood have since adopted their own versions of the process.
"Governments don't compete with each other, so they can share their work and not have to reinvent the wheel each time," Geanuracos says. "We can help them kind-of clone one government's workflow and then customize it for themselves."
In a few Pennsylvania counties, CityGrows is offering detailed reopening guidance to restaurants in the form of safety checklists, she adds.
Geanuracos says government tech companies like hers expect slow growth. The sector is often viewed as a risk-averse market, hesitant to purchase new technology.
"I always say that govtech companies are venture scale, but not venture speed," Geanuracos says. "There's a lot of hesitancy from traditional investors to look at govtech companies at all."
Those changes started long before COVID, but the pandemic has sped up the shift. Access to affordable software-as-a-service opens the doors for smaller governments to change their operations.
"A bunch of the assumptions around government are no longer valid because of COVID," Geanuracos says. "They've had to change and adapt their technology almost in real time."
CityGrows got its start after winning the Santa Monica challenge program Hack the Beach. Since its launch, the startup has supported counties and municipalities across seven states including California.
Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.
Minutes into filling out my absentee ballot last week, I was momentarily distracted by my dog Seamus. A moment later, I realized in horror that I was filling in the wrong bubble — accidentally voting "no" on a ballot measure that I meant to vote "yes" on.
It was only a few ink marks, but it was noticeable enough. Trying to fix my mistake, I darkly and fully filled in the correct circle and then, as if testifying to an error on a check, put my initials next to the one I wanted.
Then I worried. As a reporter who has previously covered election security for years, I went on a mini-quest trying to understand how a small mistake can have larger repercussions.
As Los Angeles County's 5.6 million registered voters all receive ballots at home for the first time, I knew my experience could not be unique. But I wondered, would my vote count? Or would my entire ballot now be discarded?
My distractingly sweet dog, Seamus.
Photo by Tami Abdollah
Los Angeles invests hundreds of millions each year to alleviate homelessness, but the networks that underlie those efforts are often held together by legal pads and spreadsheets.
It took a person who's suffered through the system to try to update it, so that the homeless and their advocates can get what they need, when they need it.
Anthony Greco is the founder of the Get Help app.