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. •

Comments

  1. Toderian is and was a very good planner. Very few planners care about urban design as much as he did. He was demanding to work for and demanding to work with. But he deserved a better fate than he was given.

    Though, I must say, he will make bucket load of more money in the private world than in public service. Maybe a blessing for a relatively young former senior bureaucrat.

  2. Great article Gordon. Nailed it nicely.

    I want to strongly support the value Brent brought to the city – as an urbanist – and I pray that the city will continue in this tradition, By urbanist I mean someone who understands that the way a city looks, and how the pieces of the city are assembled into form, is at least as important as how it operates.

    Emblematic of this ethos is the Cambie Corridor Planning Program (http://vancouver.ca/commsvcs/planning/cambiecorridor/) , which is North America’s only form based plan for an important urban corridor .

    Vancouver has become famous for demonstrating that good form is good business and good for our collective pride in our city. Brent and his team extended this tradition into the more difficult terrains outside of our downtown, choosing forms that increased housing opportunities while maintaining respect for surrounding neighbourhoods.

    I look forward to having Brent around for many years to come.

    Patrick

  3. A great article and insightful on the workings of city hall.

    Brent is one of the strongest planners of his generation and we are going to hear a lot more about him – and more importantly, what he knows and believes in about cities of the 21st century as that insight is drawn on by cities and others aroudn the world.

    Brent is one of many strong leaders who have been dismissed from City Hall in the past politcial term, and it appears we may be watching a radical shift in the concept of municipal government in Vancouver – from one that is driven by a combination of principles and local politics, to one more closely modelled on a provincial and federal government, where those who currently manage the Mayor’s office have their experience.

    That approach will certainly change the tone of planning in the city as in the place of a strong principled bureacracy with leaders like Brent, decisions will become more politicized, favouring those with the skills and money to influence the Mayor’s office.

    Fortunately, the legacy of Spaxman, McAfee, Beasley and Toderian have given us a great city and changes in the tone of goverance will utlimately shape the city little.

  4. Gordon, below is a Letter to Editor in response to Lisa Rochon’s article in Globe and Mail regarding Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ proposal for Ian Gillespie (Granville Bridge Gateway project at Howe & Beach) that you commented on recently on TV News. While the Globe will not likely publish this letter I thought it was germane to your “Push and Pull in Vancouver City’s planning game” piece.

    Ralph Segal MAIBC

    Re: Can Vancouver think BIG? Here’s hoping (Lisa Rochon; Globe Arts, March 10, 2012)

    As Vancouver Planning Department’s former Senior Architect & Development Planner, just recently retired, I was pleased to see Lisa Rochon’s Globe Arts article on Vancouver’s latest audacious tower proposal by Danish “starchitect” Bjarke Ingels for developer Ian Gillespie. It will, if ultimately approved by City Council, add a sparkling and welcome highlight to the city skyline and Granville Bridge entry to downtown. Less pleasing were the article’s out-dated references to the City’s alleged “rigid standards” as the cause of Vancouver’s uninspired “sea of green-and blue-glass condos”. As noted by internationally renowned architect Bing Thom, the new direction in Vancouver is that “Everybody wants to loosen up”. What is entirely missed in the article is how the City’s urban design and planning groundwork for this and several other higher building projects-to-come was laid by the Planning Department and its then Director of Planning, Brent Toderian who, not coincidently, invited Ingels to Vancouver and introduced him to developer Gillespie. Rather than “rigid” a more accurate characterization of Vancouver’s policies and guidelines is that they are very demanding, seeking a “significant new benchmark for architectural creativity and excellence” and “advancing the City’s objective for carbon neutrality for new buildings”, this from the new Higher Buildings Policy, just one example of a series of initiatives spearheaded by Mr. Toderian focusing on sustainable growth, high quality urban design and architecture and, notably, the densification that is needed to increase housing supply to help deal with the pressing issue of affordability.
    Mr. Toderian’s insistence on ”density done well”, pushing for innovative and green architectural typologies, as an alternative to the ubiquitous podium and glass tower form first introduced in the early ‘90’s which proved so economically successful in Vancouver’s hyper condo market that it was being proposed even in heritage Gastown and Chinatown, probably upset a number of developers. All of this innovation and demand for excellence apparently proved too much for the powers that be at City Hall as Mr. Toderian was fired “without cause” last month after an all too brief 6 years as Director of Planning. Although his dismissal is troubling for many who worked closely with him, Mr. Toderian will land on his feet in a public sector role in another major city or in the private sector where, in either case, his talent, drive and passion will serve his clients well. Sadly, with his unique skills and the contribution he could have continued to make here now lost to Vancouver, Ms. Rochon’s fears of rigid standards, conformist review panels, capitulation to pat formulas of urbanism, etc. as applied by the to-be-chosen new Director of Planning, may yet come to pass. Here’s hoping not.

    Ralph Segal
    Vancouver

  5. An interesting and insightful piece, Gord. I too wonder if the Vision folks don’t already have someone specific in mind for the new Director(s) of Planning, just as they have been very strategic about other new hires: thus ensuring the senior bureaucracy is aligned with their ideology and specific priorities. This should concern us all, if the result is increased politicization of City Hall staff, and less dissent or independent thinking tolerated. Just remember, politicians come and go, but the the bureaucrats tend to remain. Having smart ones who are clear thinkers is critical to the wellbeing of our city.

    With no General Manager of Community Services (the last incumbent has moved over to the City Manager’s office) or Director of Planning currently, the City seems to be drifting. Not a good sign for those who want to see progressive, independent and principled thinking at City Hall, not yes men/women.

    As for Brent, I wish him well, and am sure he will land on his feet very quickly.

  6. Gord Price has captured some of the central challenges that face the City of Vancouver, its planning and development professionals, and its community leaders. The decision to hire a bright, articulate, young urbanist who was – and remains – committed to social and economic as well as environmental sustainability was courageous. These qualities contributed to my decision to remain on City staff to help with the transition for about a year longer than I had originally intended. They are parts of the reason Brent became and remains a friend and adviser.

    As Gord indicates, Brent and the City achieved a great deal under very challenging economic circumstances which are requiring many of us to rethink and think again some of the fundamental assumptions that served us well in the past, but which may no longer be relevant.

    What has become clear is that all of us have a responsibility to help create the leaders we need and the institutional frameworks in which we can all work most effectively. The fact is that the City as a public institution and the engaged community of leaders did not surround Brent with the support required for him to fully realize his potential, or we, ours. This should serve as a guide to the kind of community we should strive to become. Hopefully City Council will have the courage not only to choose a new director who will continue to challenge us, but will also encourage all of us to surround that director with the kind of supports that are needed for him or her to succeed and for us to make our best better.

  7. I’ve known Brent Toderian, professionally, almost since he arrived to Vancouver, but mostly during my term on the DPB. Replacing Larry Beasley, yeah, that was a big job, and bigger shoes to fill as well. But it became apparent after one year, that he would make it all right! Who knew? That the worst Civic Government in Vancouver’s history would take over the Council Chambers and set us on the road to the City of Oz. Three years of municipal witch hunting does a lot of damage to a city the size of Vancouver, manager after manager was replaced, fired or forced to retire in one of the most opportunistic moves the local bureaucratic scene have seen in recent history. And trust me, I would have looked away if they would have brought in… talent.
    To do business in Vancouver in the field of Urbanism these days, is a matter of skin thickness, and it have become a form of kiss the Mother Superior’s ass. That’s why the smartest ones, ahem, me included, prefer to carry their business overseas, in finer climates and with people less inclined to give in to the pathetic local political pressure.
    “Pop, pop, pop, muzik… New York, London, Paris , Munich everybody talk about Pop Muzik”
    Here’s the news: Europe is in need of new directions, and ideas, and in all honesty there’s where the buzz is, all while our Vancouver is on the verge of becoming an Improv city where anything goes.
    Considering the way the top positions were filled by the new administration it’s only fair to say that the new Director of Planning will be a string quartet musician, my personal preference, anyone from Quarteto Gellato.
    I wish Brent good luck in his future endeavors, and I give him this advice: “Go International. They want (not likely) to bring one from Copenhagen, than for LOL, you go to Copenhagen! Don’t bother looking back at the city who’s administration treated you (and many others) the way it did. One day you’ll have to meet face to face with one of them, and what do you do then?
    IMHO, Vancouver’s loss!

  8. Gord – bang on.

    Looking back, Brent lasted in his DOP role pretty much as before him the two co-directors did (before that there were three to five co-directors, also for about 6 years or so), and a year or so more than Tom Fletcher, the previous full DOP in Vancouver. So there seems to be an unstated shelf-life to this high profile position. Two terms and out? I truly hope that isn’t true. It’s sad if it is, since city-building is definitely a long-term thing.

    Regardless, I echo the comments of my colleagues above, who document Brent’s achievements under very trying circumstances, both internal and extenal to City Hall.

    I also really enjoyed Ralph Segal’s considered yet
    in-your-face rebuttal to the G&M article about how BIG seems to be succeeding in an atmosphere that is supposedly hostile to great urban design and architecture.
    Quite the opposite is true, as has been noted. Brent built on the groundwork that Ray Spaxman and Larry Beasley, and other urban design staff, did before him, to create this exciting and changing atmosphere.

    I hope that sense of creative architectural and urbanistic experimentation is not lost in the search for a replacement.

  9. Great article and spot on commentary from all of you !!!

    As a recent ex- Assistant Director in Development Services I cannot say enough good things about what it was like to work with Brent. Under one of my hats I was a direct report to Brent in deciding hundreds of development permit applications on his behalf. Our relationship was grounded on values, principles, integrity, trust, respect and professionalism. He fostered candid and productive discussions and collaborations to ensure his vision, goals and objectives and his opinions were clear and supportable . He was equally flexible to incorporating better ideas and means towards achieving the best outcome whether it be for city planning or the agenda of Council or both. Definitely a very bright, energetic and passionate professional urbanist, a leader and in my opinion a visionary in the class of Ray, Anne and Larry before him.

    He challenged us to do better today than yesterday for the best tomorrow !

    I wish him well and look forward to seeing his future successes in the world of urbanism !!

    Switching horses to the general state of affairs. Noting the number of very positive articles that have been written about Brent’s departure and tenure, and the many equally positive comments/responses from many private practitioners and professionals including those from a number of ex-staffers clearly establish Brent was truly an excellent Director of Planning . It appears the agenda of the day is clearly about significant change and new directions – in my opinion, yes significant change needs new ideas and new blood but it also needs a healthy balance of experience , expertise and resources to make it real … losing your wealth of experience and expertise together with very promising new blood (Brent) suggests serious challenges and issues are on the horizon.

  10. Gordon, and Price Tags readers:

    Ronda Howard, Rob Jenkings and I felt it was important to comment “on the record” about Brent’s dismissal, with the following letter to the editor, which was printed in the Courier and the Georgia Straight. We hope that posting it here will widen the circle it reaches.

    “We are recently retired Assistant Directors of Planning who worked with five Directors, including Brent, and many City Councils.

    Brent worked tirelessly to address the urgent issues of sustainability and affordability, while maintaining Vancouver’s tradition of good urban design and liveability. He inspired City staff with his enthusiasm. Brent has a very strong commitment to neighbourhood consultation: we witnessed him working hard to revise proposed plans based on public input. Regarding relationships with developers, we observed Brent’s openness to and encouragement of new forms of development for “density done well”.

    In addition to the often conflicting pressures of neighbourhoods and developers, Brent faced new challenges including filling the shoes of the two previous co-Directors, major staff retirements, hiring freezes, economic downturn, and Councils’ diminished respect for professional advice.

    We are pleased to have worked with a Director as principled and passionate as Brent.”

    Needless to say, the three of us anticipate that Brent’s enthusiasm for urbanism will fuel his future endeavours.

    Trish French

  11. Sorin Tatomir – pretty strong and laughingly naive words towards twice elected leadership.

    It is not an easy job to allocate resources in deciding the broad challenges, opportunities…local practicalities all being advocated by crafty interest groups?

    1. “A lot of times in politics you have people look you in the eye and tell you what’s not on their mind.” — George W. Bush, Sochi, Russia, April 6, 2008

      Twice elected leadership, Jason…
      Do you see where I’m going with this? Anyway, your condescending argument does not hold water. As for your second paragraph… I have to give it to you, if I could only master your art of writing without saying anything… that would be just, dandy!

  12. Thought of The Day

    “Insider Doug made me do it!”

    Following the link posted by “InsiderDoug” over at City Caucus, and after reading all the comments, I feel obliged to post this humble Roundel here:

    URBAN DREAM

    Demented City,
    Expelled Brent,
    Fronted by Twitty,
    Council from Trent.

    Bang Chitty,
    Zero Content,
    Demented City,
    Expelled Brent.

    Sitting whitty,
    Almost bent,
    Nitty-gritty,
    Avenging Brent.

    Drum, water, cement…

    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *