Monday’s meeting of the Edmonds Civic Roundtable (ECR) drew an estimated 40 attendees to hear guest speaker Susan McLaughlin, who three months ago took over the reins as director of Edmonds’ Development Services Department. The previous director, Shane Hope, retired last July.
It’s a big job. Development services touches a wide array of city functions from the mundane to the controversial,including land use information and approvals, building permit review and assistance, long-range city and regional planning, building inspection, coordination of the development review processes, development standards, and enforcement of the community development code.
Nominated by Mayor Nelson last fall and confirmed by Council on Oct. 13, McLaughlin holds a masters in urban development and design from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, and a bachelor of arts in environmental studies with an urban planning emphasis from University of California, Santa Barbara.
She has more than 20 years’ experience in land use, transportation and public realm design, and played a key role in developing the Central City Rebuild Plan in Christchurch, New Zealand after the devastating 2010/2011 earthquakes. Prior to working in New Zealand, McLaughlin spent more than 10 years working in land use planning in both the public and private sectors in Santa Barbara.
Most recently, McLaughlin worked nine years for City of Seattle’s Department of Transportation, where she led a team of urban designers focused on creating innovative people-friendly street designs that help to meet equity and climate goals. Her team was also responsible for managing the Seattle Transportation Department’s Complete Streets program, fostering public-private partnerships, leading concept design for street design projects and providing design oversight on select capital projects.
“I love the livability of Edmonds,” she said. “I so enjoy being able to walk, and I love the urban perspective. This is a 15-minute city, where most of my daily necessities can be taken care of by walking or cycling.” (Read more about the 15-minute city concept here)
McLaughlin and her husband own a home in Edmonds where they have lived for the past year and a half with their two children.
“So why did I get into city planning?” she began. “I came to it first from my environmental values, my passion for the environment. I believe that as humans we have to serve our planet by living as sustainably as we can, especially in urban centers, and that how we live and perform in cities has profound effects – for good or ill – on the rest of the environment.”
She went on to reveal that this is more than just high-minded talk – she lives her beliefs – one example of which is her focus on avoiding driving. “I ride my bike most places,” she confessed. “I love living car-free.”
Relating her experiences in Christchurch, New Zealand, she told how she was originally hired as “revitalization manager” of the central city, an area of five square kilometers. The area was experiencing a decline in downtown occupancy, and she was tasked with addressing this and turning it around.
“People just didn’t want to live downtown,” she explained. “And the primary reason was that the current zoning scheme favored high-rise commercial real estate and it was not conducive for people to live there.”
Then came the 2011 earthquake.
“It was absolutely devastating,” she said. “The earthquake destroyed – leveled – 70% of that 5-square-kilometer area.”
Tragic as it was, the earthquake created the opportunity to rebuild the city with a fresh set of assumptions. Key among these was involving the community in all aspects.
“Rebuilding the city in collaboration with the community is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” she said.
Moving on to Edmonds, McLaughlin outlined her thoughts and values that will shape her approach to the job.
“First, I’m new here,” she began. “I’ve only been on the job three months. While I’ve lived here for the past year and a half, I was fully immersed in my work in Seattle, which left little time for learning about my new home. So I really started learning about Edmonds three months ago – the built form of the town, our public spaces, the transportation system, the mayor and council, and the internal workings of my department to name a few – so yes, I’m now fully immersed here.
“I’m impressed with the professionalism and dedication of my staff,” she continued. “Last year we issued the highest number of permits ever, and all while transitioning to a new online system. And judging from customer response to our survey, they seem to like it and appreciate its efficiency, especially how it cuts down on paper. It’s allowed us to be more forward-facing, while addressing our current need to get permits out the doors.”
With two new hires in the works – a planning manager and a senior planner – the department will be well poised to face the tasks ahead, primarily to get the city’s Comprehensive Plan update in gear. “We need to have the Comp Plan adopted by 2024,” she said.
McLaughlin stressed that the work will be informed by an “equity engagement framework” that will help ensure that underserved communities are included every step of the way. She added that in her view, “underserved” stems from a host of factors including economic, racial, cultural, mobility impairment, sexual orientation, and more.
She went on to explain that the process will include consultant-led interviews “in every sector and pocket of the city” to help identify key community champions who represent the various populations who would advise the city. One inducement might be something similar to Seattle’s Community Liaison program, whereby underrepresented community champions are paid to participate.
“This will open many possibilities,” she said. “What do we want to be in the future? We may choose to move in the direction of being that 15-minute city, move away from being a bedroom community, accommodate more people working from home. And all this work will be available to the public on the Development Services website. It’s important that everyone knows what’s going on and who are the key players.”
Moving to questions and answers, a question came from Edmonds business owner Janelle Cass, who recently announced her candidacy for state senate in 21st District. Cass inquired about a timeline for cleaning up city code, protecting the commercial viability of downtown business zones, and plans to coordinate with neighboring jurisdictions on projects that have potential impacts on our water, wastewater, stormwater and other infrastructure.
“We all agree that the codes need attention,” McLaughlin responded. “Codes will never be perfect – they’re convoluted and challenging – so understanding the intent of the code, what’s behind it, is critical. We’ll be starting on this as soon as the new senior planner is on board. The position is now advertised, and the work hinges on filling this hire.”
Regarding preserving commercial space, McLaughlin acknowledged the importance of what she calls the jobs/housing balance, saying that this provides a good measure of the success of a community. “We simply don’t know what the right ratio for Edmonds is at this point,” she said, adding that this is something that will be addressed as the Comprehensive Plan update moves forward and the city grapples with factors such as increases in teleworking, folks only needing to go to work one or two days per week, the effects of close proximity to the coming light rail stations, and more.
It’s also important to track the impacts of decisions made by neighboring jurisdictions on Edmonds’ infrastructure, she added.
Theresa Hutchison of Edmonds asked about housing affordability and the prospect of providing a wider range of housing to accommodate new residents over a wider socio-economic range.
“Do you feel that we should make Edmonds available as a place to live for folks who want to live here but are unable to afford the price of housing?” she asked. “If you have a job and you want to live here, should you be able to?”
“A sustainable city does provide a range of housing choices regardless of income,” responded McLaughlin. “It goes back to the jobs/housing balance I mentioned earlier. But Edmonds is not like many other Washington cities. We’re a slow-growing community. Over the past 20 years Edmonds has grown 7.5%, compared to more than 30% for the county as a whole. But that said, we need to accommodate folks from a range of socio-economic groups to have a well-balanced community.”
ECR member Roger Pence then asked that based on her experience in Seattle, what she’s learned about things not to do, and mistakes not to repeat.
McLaughlin responded that with the escalating costs of permanent infrastructure, it can be tempting in the short term to control costs by using temporary infrastructure such as bollards in place of a traditional curb.
“Permanent infrastructure should be used whenever possible,” she said. “It looks better, and over the long term the life-cycle costs are often less.”
The final question came from ECR member Dave Teitzel.
“I’m concerned about the bill now in Olympia that would supersede the ability of cities like Edmonds to make certain zoning decisions, specifically for single family,” he said. “Have you been in contact with state legislators about this?”
“I am a big proponent of local control,” McLaughlin responded. “While in general I favor diversifying housing choices, we need to take a greater hand in protecting our residents and making sure to put that density in the right place.”
McLaughlin ended her talk by inviting citizens to contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with additional questions and concerns.
“I want to hear what you have to say,” she concluded. “We’re all here to shape Edmonds in the best way possible.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel