Mr. Big: Vancouver’s Top City Planner

October 1, 2009

To understand how this city used to work, consider our tallest tower, that triangular shaft of light with the shimmering opalescent dots: the Shangri-La. When developer Ian Gillespie decided six years ago to add 646 feet of condos and luxury hotel atop that prominent Georgia Street site, he knew he’d need to go to the city’s central-area planning director with some rich plums. Bribes, you might call them, though “gifts” is a nicer word. They weren’t personal bribes for the planner in control, Larry Beasley. They were bribes for us, the residents and taxpayers. Gillespie offered to restore the heritage church next door, plant 57,000 trees to offset the building’s environmental impact, give $2.3 million to the city’s social-housing fund, provide space for a Vancouver Art Gallery sculpture garden, and come up with a distinctive design for the building, something Beasley would consider a worthy addition to the skyline.

There are people in this town who think Beasley was a genius for working out deals like that, which he did dozens of times in the decade before he stepped down, in 2006. He traded what developers most want—more space, especially high up, where it sells for bigger dollars—to get what he thought a good city should have but couldn’t pay for itself. But there are others who feel he bent the rules too far, cut special deals with developers, allowed too many condos in places that should have been preserved for businesses, ignored everything outside the downtown, and ran the whole show from his office.

The latter group was hopeful when Beasley left City Hall to become a private consultant. Then they worried that his successor, a 40-year-old planner from Calgary, would be just another Beasley. After all, Beasley had practically anointed Brent Toderian—an ambitious young man with a mania for talking about “good urbanism”—as his successor. As it turns out, they didn’t have to worry about that at all.

To understand how this city works now, consider the chunk of land just east of the new Marine Way station on the Canada Line. One of the city’s most experienced builders, the no-nonsense Andrew Grant of PCI, wanted to try something different on that patch of Southwest Marine. Two-and-a-half years ago, shortly after Toderian ascended to the throne of planning director, Grant pitched a complex of office space, stores, a Cineplex, and two residential towers. It seemed an ideal project for land next to a SkyTrain station, providing density, shoppers, and jobs right next to transit. But it’s industrial land, which the region is desperately trying to preserve and which developers love, because it’s so cheap that, if they can get it rezoned residential, they’ve saved themselves millions.

The project went nowhere. In the spring, after the new Vision Vancouver councillors put the word out to developers that they wanted to encourage rental housing (and get the city’s construction industry out of the doldrums), Grant offered to make one of the residential towers a rental-only building. Still no. Instead of bending rules the way Beasley might have, Toderian took the project to council for an opinion on whether to even consider working on it. Toderian strongly recommended that councillors not let PCI have any residential on the site, sticking to Vancouver’s policy of preserving industrial land. “Residential is an annoyance in this case,” he told them, “and it creates problems for the expansion of industrial.” If the councillors did choose to green-light the project, Toderian suggested, they should allow only one tower. The councillors ignored him, voting that the planning department should move ahead on Grant’s proposal. And that it should include both residential towers.

All of which sent a message to every developer in town. Under Beasley, the planner was the deal maker; council approval was the final border check. Now, the planning department is the police force and council makes the deals.

Planning director is a unique job here. It’s now an automatic ticket to fame—the municipal-employee equivalent of winning American Idol—since whoever occupies the position gets to preach to planners around the world who believe Vancouver is the blueprint for how to build a modern urban place. That career-boosting soapbox more than compensates for the so-so pay (at $178,000 last year, 11th among our city managers) and the planning director’s actual place in the city-hall organizational chart.

But it’s also a job where you’re at the mercy of several potentially angry mobs: the public, who think you’re giving the city away to a bunch of low-grade crooks; the politicians, who frequently feel upstaged; and, of course, the developers themselves, who are the lifeblood of the city’s revenues, election campaigns, and main area of control—land use.

These days, the developers are a particularly unhappy bunch. “Good planning is not a popularity contest. Being liked is not my priority,” says Toderian, who this late-summer day has walked from the condo he rents in the Bosa development at Granville and Seventh (a place he’s likely to be staying a while longer, since he says he can’t afford to buy here) to meet me on a waterfront patio on Granville Island, that temple of 1970s urbanism. It’s a sunny Sunday—he’s been given time off by his girlfriend, a planner with the Hotson Bakker architecture firm who’s helped him become half of quite the hot young planning couple in the city—and we’re surrounded by crowds drinking beer and eating fried things. Toderian, recovering from a cold after a series of late-night hearings, is dressed far more casually than the regulation suit he wears for council meetings. Today, it’s baggy shorts, a plaid shirt, sandals, and aviator-style sunglasses that protect his eyes. (He has a genetic predisposition to detached retinas, which has led to operations in each eye and, at one point, a month-long period of blindness.) Toderian admits that he was hated in Calgary. As he tells it, he’d been hired to change the culture at City Hall and strengthen the planning department. The local joke was that developers had a bounty on his head. “There were lots of people who tried to get me fired.”

During our talk, and a subsequent series of meetings and phone calls, Toderian makes it clear that he has no plans to get into the kind of project-by-project negotiating that Beasley did. He doesn’t have the time, for one. As he keeps reminding everyone, he’s running what used to be two departments—both Beasley’s and that of Beasley’s former co-planning director,  Ann McAfee—and he’s down 20 staff from the normal complement of 100. He also sees developing policy as the way to generate more opportunities for the city. “Without the policy work, we’ve got a lot of locked-up potential.” That’s why he’s focused so much energy in his first three years on EcoDensity. It was former mayor Sam Sullivan’s initiative, but everyone agrees Toderian has turned a mere slogan into something tangible. (By contrast, Sullivan’s Project Civil City went almost nowhere because staff were uninterested, saying they were already doing everything named under the slogan.) Toderian has also put enormous effort into developing a city-wide policy on laneway housing, instead of just running the simpler pilot project that others had suggested. 

Now, he wants to take the city’s 20-year-old CityPlan, initiated under Gordon Campbell, and update it into something even more elaborate: EcoCityPlan, with a physical plan for the future city of a kind never seen before. Beasley saw policy as just the first step, the foundation a planner pours. In his world, the policy becomes reality as the planner negotiates, building by building, to make the policy work, adapting it to make sure that it enables development instead of quashing it. What’s important to Toderian is to develop policy and then stick to it. He sees policy as the template that will solve all the problems. Ergo, until the policy changes, he has to follow the rules. Which is why the development community, fed up with both his abrasive personal style and what they see as his time-wasting policy work (which they think is geared more to giving him speech material on the international circuit than actually getting anything done in the city) is staging a mutiny.

In mid July, Mayor Gregor Robertson met with a group of developers to get their feedback on how the market was doing and their assessment of the Olympic village. When he asked what else was on their minds, it was like banging into a wasps’ nest. Toderian. Specifically? Paralyzingly cautious. Delegates everything and leaves projects to hang for months. And actually obstructing the affordable-housing projects that council has called the city’s main goal. “Projects that should take six months take two years,” said one developer. “He just grinds you.” Someone suggested that, from now on, any projects worth more than $100 million should go straight to council for a decision rather than being mired in Toderian’s planning-department swamp.

It’s a worrying sign, even acknowledging that developers are chronically unhappy. Three years earlier, when Toderian had just been hired, a group at the city’s Urban Development Institute—the developers’ association—discussed putting in a formal request to have him fired. They’d heard negative reports from Cowtown, including that the UDI chapter there had a thick file of complaints about him. That request, along with the suggestion the city’s hiring process also be investigated, is still sitting on the computer of one of the members, unsent. Usually people start to adjust after three years, once they’ve figured out the new guy’s style. But that’s not happening.

Almost no one in town will speak openly, whether they’re critical of Toderian or secretly admiring of the young planning director whom they think will grow into his job and bring new energy to the city. The critics are terrified that getting on his bad side will put their multimillion-dollar projects, which cost tens of thousands a month in carrying charges, into limbo for even longer. His fans in the city are wary of saying anything negative about Beasley, who still casts a long shadow in this town. Inside City Hall, many of Toderian’s staff see him as more inclusive and more respectful of his planners, leaving them to make major project decisions—but they’re the most publicity shy of all.

A few people will talk, cautiously. “He’s achieved a lot in a relatively short time. He’s a bright young man, but he’s starting to generate discontent with his personal style,” says Michael Geller, an innovative development consultant who has, to his surprise, ended up in public arguments with Toderian. “He has strong opinions, but they’re not always informed.” Bob Rennie, the condo marketer who’s involved in half the major projects in town, says Vancouver used to be unusual in the way its planners and developers co-operated to generate economic benefits for both sides. “Now there is a sentiment amongst developers that it’s the planning department against the developers.” And development consultant Bob Ransford, who’s been around for several decades, says Toderian doesn’t seem to grasp that no matter how good a planner’s ideas are or how popular he is with the New Urbanism Congress (the cool clique of the planning world), he needs to be savvy about steering his ideas through the local minefield. “Brent’s got some great planning ideas, but he’s too theoretical. And he’s rushing ahead on his agenda but often seems to lack the necessary political skills.” Ransford doesn’t agree with everything Beasley did as planning director, but he notes that Beasley was a master diplomat who could get people believing that whatever he proposed was what they had wanted all along.

Toderian couldn’t be more unlike Beasley, and not just in planning approaches. Beasley, originally from the American South, is a passionate collector of antique furniture and paintings. His fondness for the formal regularity of Georgian architecture is echoed in some of the city’s downtown developments. And he worked so well with developers that a building downtown was named after him—raising eyebrows around town at the cozy relationship that suggested.

Toderian comes from what he implies privately to some is the wrong side of the tracks in various small towns in Ontario, and played in his parents’ country-music band but pulled himself away from that, as so many bright young kids have, by throwing himself into school. He’s been encouraging developers and architects to be more “exuberant” in the design of their projects. And he’s so wary of what he seems to see as the unruly-developer mob ready to ram the door down that he’s cautious to the point of incivility. When prominent local architect Richard Henriquez met him for the first time to discuss a project, he presented Toderian with a signed copy of a book about his work. Toderian immediately passed the book to a staff member, asking her to check whether it was worth more than the $80 limit the city sets on gifts that can be accepted.

Toderian could pass for a Texas roadie, with his flat-top, long sideburns, and the physique of someone who, as a colleague jokes, “bench-presses Boeings.” On a recent weekend, he spent the afternoon lying in the park near his condo reading Jeffrey Rubin’s book about peak oil. He packs his Rollerblades whenever he goes to another city and explores it that way, taking thousands of pictures for his files on what makes cities work. And he’s plugged into his BlackBerry 24/7, messaging to a wide circle with links to his blog posts or to any story done on Vancouver planning achievements.

To those who like Toderian, his energy and almost compulsive need to talk about urban planning show real passion. To others, especially those who find themselves with little oxygen to breathe anywhere he’s holding forth, his style comes across as the product of a constitutional inability to have a dialogue.

For now, no matter what people think of Toderian’s style or his approach to taking Vancouver post-Beasley, his job appears safe. Councillor Raymond Louie, who oversees the development file, defends Toderian, saying he has no choice except to follow existing policy. “But when he gets new direction from council, he acts on it.” And with all the upheavals elsewhere at City Hall, no one has the energy to go through the arduous process of replacing him. Especially when there’s no obvious candidate for this high-stakes job.

Or maybe it’s not so high-stakes anymore, since it’s council that’s now calling the shots on tomorrow’s Shangri-Las.

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