Planning director’s departure increases Vancouver city development uncertainty

Builders call for radical policy changes to accompany any new Vancouver city-planning regime

Brent Toderian in 2010 with a model of a downtown office tower proposal: firing of Vancouver City’s planning director has resurrected debate over its development practices and costs

Developers hope the City of Vancouver’s January 31 firing of planning director Brent Toderian will change how it extracts money to pay for community amenities and make it easier to develop projects in the city, which issued $1.7 billion worth of building permits in 2011.

Mayor Gregor Robertson told media that he didn’t think Toderian was the right leader to spearhead new affordable housing initiatives.

Some developers interpret that as a positive sign that the mayor wants to make it easier to develop residential projects.

Others, however, say that Robertson and his recently re-elected majority Vision Vancouver council are ideologically driven to sock it to developers, so the new planning director is unlikely to make radical changes.

“I expect change,” said Ledingham McAllister president Ward McAllister, whose company has developed real estate in Vancouver since 1905.

“The community amenity contribution (CAC) program at the city of Vancouver has to be completely revamped.”

That program forces developers to give the city 70% to 80% of the profit realized when properties are rezoned to accommodate more valuable land uses. The city then invests the money in social housing, day care or heritage restoration.

What infuriates developers more than the size of the required “voluntary” contributions, however, is the seeming arbitrary nature of how much they have to give. Sometimes the CAC is based on the increased value of a property since 2009; sometimes it’s based on the property’s value in 2011. The difference can be huge.

“There’s so much uncertainty in this business. The one thing you don’t want to be uncertain about is how much the city wants to participate,” McAllister said.

“Burnaby is probably the best CAC model in the region. There are base densities on sites. If a rezoning increases the allowable density, the City of Burnaby participates in that increase in density through a very defined program as a percentage of market value. You know exactly where you are at, exactly what you can afford to pay for your land.”

McAllister has abandoned the four projects that he recently wanted to develop along the Cambie corridor and has vowed not to develop another project in Vancouver that requires a rezoning until there is more clarity in the process.

MacDonald Development Corp. principal Robert MacDonald has gone further. He’s refusing to develop anything in Vancouver until city hall radically changes and simplifies its CAC process.

“We’ve got $300 million of business in Calgary, where the system is predictable and there is no extortion,” he said.

“It became better when they kicked Brent Toderian out of here. He used to be a planner in Calgary and the complaint file on him from developers was a foot thick.”

MacDonald doubts that significant policy change will occur in the city’s planning department because Toderian was acting under the authority of decision-makers higher up the city’s chain of command, such as the mayor, the mayor’s chief of staff Mike Magee and city manager Penny Ballem.

The city said in a statement that it’s embarking on an international search to find a planning director within six months.

City hall watchers such as blogger Mike Klassen believe that the city’s next top planner will be “malleable” to whatever Vision Vancouver wants.

“What does Vision Vancouver want to do?,” he said. “That’s the $64,000 question.”

After council endorsed Toderian’s firing in an in-camera meeting, Robertson told reporters that council’s agenda was “housing affordability and economic development integrated into planning.”

Achieving results on those fronts will take more diplomacy than Toderian typically showed, according to Bob Ransford, Counterpoint Communications Inc. consultant and urban designer.

“We’re no longer talking about developments on a large scale,” he said. “With developments within neighbourhoods, and on smaller sites, we’re going to have to broker more trade-offs. That will require a level of diplomacy that balances the interests of residents, the development community, politicians, planners and all of the stakeholders.” •