Planner a victim of politics and city land-use pressures

Vancouver’s recently departed director of planning Brent Toderian was hired while I was on city council.

Vancouver’s recently departed director of planning Brent Toderian was hired while I was on city council.

I remember being told that his hiring would be the most important decision our council would make in its term. The mystique of Vancouver’s top planner still hovers over city hall like the Angel Gabriel – glowing, omnipotent, delivering otherworldly benefits to our supernaturally situated city. I know commuters who bowed their heads to former chief planner Ray Spaxman every morning as they drove down Hornby (back when the view wasn’t crowded out by all those bike lanes and that obnoxious screen on Canada Place). They loved him for preserving the view corridor to the mountains.

Toderian’s predecessor Larry Beasley worked so many miracles a developer named a building after him. Succeeding Beasley (and, let it be noted, his undersung co-director of planning Ann McAfee) wouldn’t be easy – especially with the two jobs, policy planning and current developments, rolled into one.

As it turned out, city staff finessed council – or at least this councillor – in delivering Toderian to us as a done deal. I was never sure whether this was Beasley’s parting political two-step, as Toderian was rumoured to be His choice as successor. Regardless, we were happy with the choice.

Then I got a call from a breathless developer right after the appointment. There must be some mistake, he gasped into the phone. Did we not know that Toderian was the most hated man in Calgary? No, we didn’t, but when I investigated, I couldn’t help concluding that it might be because he stood up to previously unfettered developers with a passion for the same planning principles that have made Vancouver great.

The job of director of planning in Vancouver is probably the most difficult in city hall and having firm planning beliefs – which Toderian does – is only part of it. He totally got Vancouverism and the benefits of dense communities to accommodate unstoppable population growth.

His first major assignment – sell “eco-density” to a resistant public – refined his political skills to at least survive public onslaughts against density, if not prevent them.

But then he got jammed between the city’s written plans, communities’ dream plans (a.k.a. CityPlan), council’s political realities and the mercurial world of negotiations between them all. Communities are expected to find a way to live with growth and density (which few really want), developers want certainty and politicians want the path of least resistance. Reconciling all this calls for a planner and a player. Toderian was a planner.

On the developer side, Toderian learned the hard way that the “voluntary,” capricious community amenity contributions (CACs) that worked so well in Coal Harbour and North False Creek brownfield developments became sticky and complex in smaller, more nuanced developments. Losing a raft of seasoned senior staff to retirement compounded his difficulties.

The wild speculation and land assembly fantasies currently playing out along the Cambie corridor are a prime example. Absent a specific block-by-block plan for density and a specific figure for CACs, everyone is flailing desperately.

Millions are about to be won or lost, depending on negotiations with the city planning director.

Toderian was talking about ending this kind of unnecessary speculation with a grand plan clarifying allowable land uses across the city. Later. Before that, he was facing a council wishing that he could do the impossible: tame neighbourhood opposition as the city moved into upzoning inhabited residential areas to accommodate growth.

Toderian’s stubborn defence of good planning principles – he vainly tried to protect industrial zoning at Cambie and Marine – and his sometimes cavalier approach to NIMBY community input, finally wearied his political masters.

Or maybe the city manager just wanted to finish her clean sweep of top-ranking city staff. •