My latest column in Business in Vancouver:
Whenever a senior high-profile public servant is canned – TTC head Gary Webster in Toronto, Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian – there’s a push and a pull.
It’s clear that in both cases there was a political push out the door – and much speculation, in the case of Toderian, as to the reasons. Developer discontent? Personality conflict? Control issues by the city manager?
But there can also be a pull – a desire if not a need for a mayor and council to get someone who can deliver on their agenda. The speculative question then is whether they have someone in mind, even if they announce an international search at the time they bounce the incumbent out the door.
Behind both pressures – the push, the pull – is the assumption that the political leaders have some strategy, something they want to see done in their time in power. If there’s not, if they’re making it up as they go along, it’s just chaos, emotions taking over, revenge in the air.
Though there might be some of that in Toronto, it was clearly not the case with Toderian. But there was tension. The planning directors of Vancouver have had star power for the last half century – from Gerald Sutton Brown to Larry Beasley – and with that has come some independence. Indeed, there was a belief in the Vancouver bureaucracy, the planning department in particular, that their primary duty is to serve the city and its people and not just the council in office at the time.
Toderian feels he did both: implemented council’s directives and policies, notably on sustainability, but still spoke up and made cases for ideas and decisions that might have gone against the desires of the Third Floor at 12th and Cambie. Some will take his departure to mean that there’s no room for such voices at city hall today.
But do Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver have, if not someone in mind, a sense of what they want from a planner?
Perhaps they want someone more single-mindedly forceful, ready to deliver the numbers, more skilled at land negotiations than urban design. That also means a shift in the priorities of the department. The strategic thinking and designing part of planning will be sidelined in the demand for quick results for more housing affordability, with more emphasis on jobs being created, costs being lowered and not so much on the provision of amenities – a trend already begun with the STIR program.
Then again, how likely is it that a socially progressive council would neglect community consultation or want to be seen as cheapening Vancouver? How will they convince communities to accept increased densities if there are not increased public benefits?
Toderian leaves the office very much in the tradition of those who preceded him. He was a big personality with both vision and passion, and we like a little messiah in our planners. He was, above all, a passionate exponent of urbanism. It might have taken five years just for him to get beyond the shadow of Beasley and Ann McAfee, the co-planners who preceded him in what already seems like a golden age, but he will likely take that shadow with him – the best gift he could make to his successor.
His legacy may be the success with which the city’s neighbourhoods began to densify. The critics were intense, but few.
His frame for thinking about density – invisible, hidden and gentle – proved remarkably successful at aiding that change. In his time, single-family zoning came to an end in Vancouver.
Yes, it required councils willing to pass such sweeping change, but the ease with which new forms of housing came into neighbourhoods that hadn’t seen any significant change since they were built must be acknowledged. That it happened without a fuss is a testament to his success.
Some developers think planning in Vancouver has been excessively concerned with detail and too slow to respond. While they have had to accept city hall intrusions into their designs and claims on their profits, they would probably be happy with a more neutered department, especially if it could be done in the name of affordable housing. There would, however, be other consequences.
Toderian isn’t going away soon, though job offers are coming in. He likes it here, is now married, has already established his own firm – and may be able to make a living, as has Beasley, by taking Vancouver to the world. Indeed, all the previous planners are still around. And, I expect, they’re all waiting to see what council does and whom it chooses before deciding what they in turn might do if the planning traditions of Vancouver and the independence of the planning director are compromised. •