Rebecca Esau offers insights, advice as retirement nears

News Article
This is a photo of Rebecca Esau, director of the Bureau of Development Services.
The outgoing director of the Bureau of Development Services offers her perspectives on the achievements of, and opportunities for, Portland’s permitting and zoning review processes.

Rebecca Esau was appointed interim director of the Bureau of Development Services in April 2017 and promoted to the permanent job the following October. This promotion followed more than 20 years of service to the City of Portland in various bureaus and positions dealing with development review.

Esau is retiring on Dec. 18. She sat down to offer her candid perspectives on development review processes in Portland and advice for her colleagues, the development community and the public.

What are you most proud of from your tenure as director?

I’m incredibly proud of the management team I’ve created, as they are all great leaders and have been great partners with me in prioritizing customer service, equity, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. I am also very proud of the many improvements we’ve made in how we provide services to the community. Also, I am very proud that we were successful in getting the City Council’s support to consolidate the City’s development services and permitting functions into a single new entity.

What did you hope to accomplish, but didn’t?

I had hoped that the City would consolidate the development review and permitting functions years ago, so I could’ve helped navigate that transition, as I have been a proponent of this change for many years. But I am glad to have gotten us this far with it, with the resolution that City Council approved in August 2023. This is the biggest, most consequential change that was needed as the foundation to make improvements to the City’s ability to deliver these services to the community, and to continue to build a consistent culture of customer service, and to have a cohesive agency and clear lines of authority and accountability, rather than having these services spread across seven bureaus.

As you look back on your career, are there any decisions or policies related to permitting or the Bureau that you would approach differently in hindsight?

We’ve seen the benefits of assigning a single point of contact to assist customers, for example, with the Field Issuance Remodel Program, the Facility Permit Program, and the Process Management Program.  In retrospect, I would have expanded that model sooner, as it’s very effective.  Along with that, forming interdisciplinary teams around project types (such as new single dwelling residential projects or commercial alterations, etc.), is another improvement that I wish we could have made, but before we could do that, we needed to do the consolidation of the development review and permitting services into a single entity. Once that’s done, having project teams would be a big benefit to our customers.

How have development review processes and systems evolved during your service with the City?

When I started with the City in 1996, I worked for the Bureau of Planning which was the Bureau responsible for both updating the zoning code as well as administering it.  A reorganization happened, and City Council moved the zoning code administration staff and merged them with what was the Bureau of Buildings, and they renamed this entity the Office of Planning & Development Review, which later became the Bureau of Development Services (BDS). That organizational change was very beneficial as these staff were involved with reviewing development proposals and permits for compliance with the zoning code, and it allowed for much closer coordination with the other staff in the Bureau of Buildings who were doing development review and permitting work. These employees set up systems with the Bureau of Planning to maintain ongoing coordination with the long-range planners and staff who maintain the zoning code, to ensure the feedback loop between these interconnected functions was preserved. The benefits of that move are what we are currently trying to achieve with the consolidation of all development review and permitting functions into one entity, while finding new and better ways to preserve the critical feedback loop between code administration and the policy/code-writing functions back at the bureaus these staff are coming from.

Another major change is the modernization of our processes. When I first started work with the City of Portland, staff had just made the transition from typewriters to Mac computers. The City later invested in permitting software, but over time, it hadn’t been upgraded and was no longer supported by the vendor, creating great risk to the City. This was one of my first tasks as director, to complete the major upgrade of this system, and we successfully launched that in February 2020.

Another major change I’ve led has been the transition from an in-person, paper-based permitting system to an online system using digital plans. This has been a major change from when the City required four physical sets of construction drawings for every building permit, and staff pushed these plans around the building in carts to get them to the reviewers.

Additionally, we developed an app for inspectors to use and equipped them with tablets so they could get their itinerary at the beginning of each work day and complete their inspections work from the field, and no longer needed to come into the office to use their in-office computer at the beginning and end of each day to enter the results of their inspections. Also, we began using live-streaming remote video re-inspections which both saved time and were more convenient for contractors.

What are your hopes for the permitting unification efforts currently underway?

I am so very pleased that the City is finally unifying these functions into a single entity. If you were designing an organizational structure to provide these services, it’s doubtful you would propose what we have today. My hopes for this new consolidated entity are that:

  • This will break down silos that exist and there will be improved, proactive, solution-oriented coordination among staff as they assist customers with projects;
  • The director and management team of this new entity will continue to build a customer service culture.  This does not mean the staff approve everything, but that they partner with customers in trying to find solutions, to show empathy for what the customer is experiencing, and serve as guides and helpers to the public as they seek the entity’s services.
  • The director and management team will continue to build a culture of continuous improvement, to use data to track where the issues and pinch points are, and to maintain regular communications with customers to understand where improvements are needed, and to collaboratively design, and implement improvements in an ongoing way, continuing to modify and adapt the entity’s services to meet changing needs in the community.
  • The director and management team will continue to prioritize equity work, and taking the steps needed to achieve better outcomes for BIPOC Portlanders and people with disabilities through relationship-building, and tailoring our systems and services to better meet the needs of these communities.
  • The creation of new venues for ongoing communication and feedback between the code administration staff, and the policy and code-writing staff back at their home bureaus, to continue to update development-related requirements overtime to get the desired results in the field, and to see the important connections between this work, and need to invest in it as a critical community service.

As you look out on the future of development in Portland, what provides you with optimism? Looking ahead, what do you believe are the emerging trends and priorities in city permitting, and how should the Bureau position itself to address these challenges and opportunities in the future?

The consolidation of city permitting into a single entity gives me great optimism that these services will continue to improve while continuing to maintain and invest in the City’s infrastructure systems. Portland is facing a lot of challenges, particularly downtown, and new vision is needed for the future of downtown neighborhoods and how to make them vibrant and safe again. We aren’t going backwards to the numbers of office workers that populated downtown and supported its commercial ecosystem prior to the pandemic. I am optimistic that the City will develop and implement this vision for what comes next for downtown.

What advice do you have for your successor?

(David Kuhnhausen was appointed interim director by Commissioner Carmen Rubio in late October.)

Ask a lot of questions and gather information and then lead with boldness. Don’t be reluctant to change course. Try new approaches. Continue to build and maintain connections with the communities we serve to hear their perspectives with openness. Explore what other innovative cities are doing. Remember why we’re here: to serve the community. Keep your sense of humor.

What advice do you have for the current and future city councils?

With change comes opportunity. There is a lot of change underway and we are at a pivotal point. Go big, and let’s make our organization what it needs to be for the future, and don’t just tinker around the edges.

What advice do you have for the development community?

The City of Portland is committed to making the changes needed to support development, particularly housing production, and the restoration of Portland’s small businesses, particularly BIPOC-owned businesses. We need your partnership and creativity with us to help with Portland’s recovery. This is a great city going through a tough stretch, but it will recover. Don’t give up on Portland.

As you transition into retirement, what are some of the personal goals or aspirations you look forward to pursuing outside of your professional life?

I want to be able to have the freedom, time and energy to support my aging parents, and to provide the care they need. Being productive in giving back to the community is very rewarding for me, so I’ll be exploring ways to continue to do that. I also love to garden and work on my bonsai, as well as delve into researching my family tree. Additionally, I love to travel, so I’m starting to plan my next trip!

How do you plan to stay engaged with your professional network and industry after retirement, and do you anticipate any involvement in mentoring or advisory roles?

At the moment, I have no firm plans, but am happy to help if my experience or advice is needed.

Can you share some memorable moments or experiences that have shaped your perspective and leadership style during your time as Director?

Within the first month of taking the Interim Director position in April 2017, BDS employee and colleague, Ricky Best was murdered by a white supremacist on the MAX train. This experience has stayed with me, and the need to support staff with compassion, and to find ways to navigate what support was needed as the Bureau grieved.

The major layoffs in 2009 were also a significant experience, and we’ve worked hard to put systems in place to avoid repeating that. We are currently in a significant, unique downturn, and have been putting those systems in place. They include cutting our expenditures early, as we’ve done through recent layoffs, to avoid running out of the Bureau’s financial reserves before construction activity rebounds in Portland. If that happens, we will have to make more drastic cuts to our workforce, to suddenly bring our spending in line with our monthly revenues.

The Bureau is almost entirely funded by fee revenue. The City can’t continue this funding model and expect different results.  We need to change the funding model and diversify how the development review, permitting, and inspections functions are funded. Fee revenue fluctuations are felt first when there’s a downturn. Later the General Fund is impacted. So if these functions were funded by both of these funding sources (fees and General Fund), the timing difference of when they fluctuate would help smooth out some of the financial volatility resulting from changes in the construction industry.

You have long been a proponent of professional development. What strategies have you employed to grow in your position? What advice would you give colleagues as new leaders emerging in developing their skills and talents?

I would recommend building connections and relationships with other groups and professions and cities to continue to stay up to date with needs of customers, trends, new policies/systems/tools/services, etc. Read about what others are doing and other disciplines.

Also, when making decisions on hiring or promotions, don’t solely focus on degrees. You want a variety of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. The most important thing is to hire people who are creative problem-solvers, who like to help people, who are motivated and share a commitment to making things better. Help employees find the places and roles where they can excel and shine. Work in a variety of different places, as you learn from each of them. Stay open and curious.