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Ed McKinney: Planning director in the interim; putting down roots for the long haul

Ed McKinney moved to Charlotte a year and a half ago to take the job of assistant planning director for the city of Charlotte. His previous role as a consultant for a design and engineering firm in Atlanta had him travelling too much. “I went to the public sector because I had a desire to be in one city and shape the city that I live in for a positive outcome,” the 44-year-old McKinney said.

McKinney

McKinney

McKinney is getting to do just that. This month, he was named interim planning director for the city of Charlotte. He succeeds Debra Campbell, who was named assistant city manager.

McKinney has a dual master’s degree in architecture and city planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1996, the Wisconsin native signed on with civil engineering and planning firm Glatting Jackson in Orlando, Fla., for several years before heading back to Atlanta to set up an office.

It was there, back in 2002, that McKinney first became involved in the Queen City’s future, consulting on the Charlotte Area Transit System’s land-design plans surrounding future light-rail stations. That work allowed him to build contacts within Charlotte’s planning department that he put into effect last year when he “reached out to folks,” including Campbell, here in Charlotte.

McKinney’s work history also includes a four-year stint at AECOM, an architectural and engineering firm that bought Glatting Jackson in 2009. He was an assistant principal at Los Angeles-based AECOM until moving to the Charlotte planning department in May 2013. He lives with his wife and two children in SouthPark.

How is your job now different from that of assistant planning director? The assistant director is definitely more involved with managing day-to-day and key projects and working with staff.  As interim director, I oversee a broader spectrum of things. A lot of the job is helping to manage the department as a whole and working to focus our resources.

Would you be interested if they offered you the job of director? I think so. I’d be interested in pursuing it. But there will be an involved selection process nationally that will determine the future director. Right now I’m focused on managing the transition.

What qualities do you bring to the job? The ability to really listen and understand people’s concerns.  A lot of work I’ve done in the past was in planning, design and consulting for municipalities and cities. Community planning is all about working hard to truly understand the issues and desires of an area.  Our job is to try to articulate that in an achievable vision. We’re not always going to agree on the path of how to do that but our job is to do the best that we can.

What is a typical day like for you? There’s a fair number of meetings. Working with staff to answer questions and keep projects moving forward. Responding to calls that citizens or the city council might have. You’ve really got to provide customer service.

What sort of projects are you working on? We’re going to take a comprehensive look at the whole zoning ordinance and potentially rewrite significant portions. That’s going to be a big effort over the next few years. We’re bringing on a consultant to help us do that. The ordinance was most recently updated back in the early ‘90s so there are a lot of things we can enhance given the nature of development as we see it moving forward.

What kind of development are you seeing now? In town, there are a lot of infill development and mixed-use development where there are design issues in relation to neighborhoods and existing corridors. And we’re finalizing the station-area planning on the Blue Line extension in the University City area. That’s really important because in the next couple of years that line will be operational and we want to have a vision for development in play around those stations.

We’re also finalizing a plan for the area around the I-485 and Prosperity Church Road interchange. There’s been a long-term development vision for that area and we’re trying to update it. There are some well-established neighborhoods up there and, given that new access, we need to understand the community’s desires and anticipate what growth will bring.

What are your biggest planning challenges? Something the city planning department is trying to do is strengthen dialogue and engagement with residents. There’s a lot of change and growth happening in Charlotte, which is a good thing. But with that change comes anxiety and the need to understand the desires of a particular neighborhood, the community at large and businesses. The challenge is there are always new ways to communicate – social media, websites. We do town-hall meetings, design charrettes and workshops. Our challenge is to be on the cutting edge and proactively reach out. I’d redescribe engaging the community not as a challenge but as an opportunity.

Also, taking advantage of the investments the city is making in light rail and streetcars. Our community-investment plan in the next couple of years looks at strategic public investments in neighborhoods and corridors to promote development in the right way. It’s our role to make sure the investment we’re making in transit is supported by the right kind of development around the stations.

Do you often get the local residents on one side of an issue and Realtors and business on the other? What do you do? We do on the surface. A lot of times it’s because neither side truly understands the other. In some cases we help bridge between those two positions and provide the right information on both sides. A lot of times a neighborhood isn’t familiar with the details and potential impact of a development. Developers sometimes don’t fully understand where the neighborhood is coming from. Vocal opposition is sometimes a sign of not having an understanding.

Will Charlotte be the next Atlanta? I don’t think so. I know Atlanta reasonably well because I lived there for over 10 years. Charlotte is a city that’s growing and has a tremendous amount of opportunity, like Atlanta, but it’s very different from Atlanta. The way we will shape growth here will be different because we can avoid the mistakes Atlanta made.

Such as? The geography of the municipality of Charlotte is much bigger than that of Atlanta. The way the city and municipalities are set up in Atlanta are much more fractured. We have the ability here to make more comprehensive decisions about planning and investment. That’s something you can’t necessarily do in Atlanta. Charlotte has a great track record of good planning. It’s on the national stage as a place that is doing the right thing from a growth and planning perspective.

What would you love to see happen in Charlotte? There are some things in the works that are extremely powerful. The Cross-Charlotte trail, which is a project in the bond package for community investment, would build upon the Little Sugar Creek Greenway and extend it down to South Carolina and all the way north to University City. You’d be able to go all the way through Charlotte on this 26-mile trail. It would connect through neighborhoods, uptown and areas with redevelopment. Projects like that could be very transformative. They would shape people’s lives, not just in terms of recreation, but in commuting. People would see the city in a different way. I also think there is tremendous potential around the transit-station areas. A lot of stuff will be happening uptown. There are great opportunities to capture quality-of-life benefits through development projects.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I’ll be here in Charlotte. I’d like to be able to look back on the 10 years and say, “We really made a difference and influenced development in the city that strengthened the quality of life for people in Charlotte.” It doesn’t have to be a certain job, I just want to be able to say that I had that influence.

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