September 10, 2019

Brent Toderian: It Was the Best of Jobs, It Was the Worst of Jobs

A tale of two city-makers — one, a son of the working poor, who showed an early knack for creation and collaboration, in part through the use of polyhedral dice; the other, a world-renowned urban planner, with a Twitter following as large as the populations of some of the cities he now calls clients.

The two are, of course, the same man. Brent Toderian arrived in Vancouver in 2006 as the new Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, stepping into the role jointly held by Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee. In addition to being part of the team of “mad geniuses” at 12th & Cambie, Beasley and McAfee were already legends in the planning community for having presided over the era which introduced Vancouverism to North America.

In explaining the trajectory that brought him here — an early passion for law, a degree in environmental science from University of Waterloo (major in urban and regional planning, natch), and early success managing city centre planning and design in Calgary — Toderian plots and connects a few new dots in his life story.

That’s the opening flourish, however, to a more fascinating and controversial narrative, one which to this day still casts a shadow on the political makeover initiated by Vision Vancouver in the early days of their first majority on council (2008-2011). An administrative shake-up of epic proportions placed Toderian — halfway through what might have otherwise been a legendary tenure of his own at City Hall — in a very, very difficult position, one which ultimately became untenable.

If you know anything about Toderian, whether personally, by reputation, or by Twitter feed, you agree with his self-assessment: he has zero tolerance for boredom, he believes planners aren’t (or perhaps shouldn’t be) neutral, and he’s unafraid of speaking truth to power (both the act, and its potential consequences). All of which might explain why he only lasted three years into the reign of then-City Manager Penny Ballem, who replaced her much-venerated predecessor Judy Rogers in 2008 to the chagrin of, …well… almost everyone. It’s an act of political interference still bemoaned for both its immediate and long-term consequences.

But in case that’s still not enough of an explanation, Toderian speaks for himself — perhaps more candidly than you might have expected — as to the impact of that personnel change, and why he couldn’t stay at CoV. Whether due to the mellowing effects of time, fatherhood, or his subsequent success as an urbanist consultant and celebrity with Toderian UrbanWorks, Toderian opens up about this exciting, fraught time of his career, in a fast-moving discussion with Gord.

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It was 2009, Vancouver was about to become the largest metro region to host a winter Olympic Games, and the city faced a challenge of similarly grandiose proportions — how to accommodate a 30% increase in downtown transportation trips alongside a 30% reduction in road network capacity, thanks to Games-related operations.

For Lon LaClaire, a transportation planning engineer at that fraught moment in the city’s history, it was an experiment that would prove to be the ultimate litmus test of the city’s potential to lead North America in the prioritization of efficient, effective, and (still) decidedly unsexy transportation modes — walk, bike, transit.

It happened of course (turns out snow was the issue — go figure), and that experiment’s success paved the way for the past 10 years of a transportation paradigm shift in policy and investments that is indeed now recognized across the continent, if not the world. And it’s due in no small part to LaClaire’s leadership on the City’s transportation engineering team, not to mention a certain je ne sais quoi….translation: “How is this guy so calm?!?

Today, he’s Director of Transportation with the City; if you’re part of Twitter’s #vanpoli urban wonk mob, you heard Cambie Report’s interview with LaClaire a month ago. And if you’re one of the many visitors to Vancouver for next week’s 25th Annual Rail~Volution Conference (considered by some as the Olympics of urban planning), Gord gets LaClaire to chip out a few new gems.

Such as his ‘what if?’ moment about Vancouver’s transportation history, to complement a plethora of our real-life ‘aha‘ moments. Or his explanation for why, over the last 25 years, our streets are moving less traffic, even while population and commuting trips has grown. Better yet — LaClair’s compelling reason why anyone concerned about transportation in their backyard should run, not walk, to VanConnect to report street issues and concerns. Most worrisome? His prediction of the problem many of us will face on opening day of the Broadway Skytrain extension in 2025.

All that, plus the secrets of grid resilience, the transit hub where City’s motto comes to life, and what to do with unused asphalt. Only the best for our 50th episode…

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Every child is full of questions. And while the science is fuzzy, it seems that children who ask questions about the future — not how things work today, but how they could work better tomorrow — tend to make great planners.

Michael Gordon was one of those children. And his legacy as one of the most important planners of Vancouver’s Golden Age (thank you, Larry Beasley) has been built by finding answers to the most difficult of questions about the growth of inner cities. Namely, is it possible to make exponential leaps in urban densification — doubling or tripling the number of people living in communities — and maintain quality of life, even (or especially) their character?

Growth and stability. Heterogeneity and heritage. They’re almost impossible dynamics to manage, being both deeply personal and matters of public interest. Yet, somehow Michael Gordon has made them work.

Like supporting a doubling of the West End population over the last generation, while allowing its Robson, Davie and Denman ‘village’ communities to remain desirable, even improving by most measures. Or masterminding the slow but sure transformation of Granville Street (especially the 900-block) into a downtown entertainment district extraordinaire, without sacrificing the existing retail mix and transit hub activity.

He also showed his peers — at the City, as well through his extra-curricular dabblings with UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and the Planning Institute of BC (PIBC) — that you’re never too old to be an effective planner for new tricks. Like skateboarding, which he took up at age 47, and added to his portfolio of planned placemaking via the Downtown Skateboard Park, tucked under the Dunsmuir Viaduct at Quebec and Union streets.

So…since he now has a lot of the answers, Gord Price and co-host Rob McDowell started asking the questions. Have engineers displaced planners as the creative forces in cities? Will the City-wide Plan solve everything? Did he, along with everyone else, miss affordability as a factor in community planning?

And how do planners plan for the future — plan for change — when the communities themselves seem not to want it?

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There’s nothing like listening to a gifted speaker riff on culture and politics; especially when the riffing is concise, with a judicious use of words, and an almost complete absence of hyperbole or bafflegab.

Sure, that sounds like Peter Ladner. But in this edition of Price Talks torch-passing, it also describes Vivienne Zhang, the successor to Ladner’s predecessor.

Zhang is a UBC grad, currently en route to the Paris Institute of Political Studies (‘Sciences Po‘) to begin her Masters in international security, with an eye to a future career in politics. Born in Beijing, with years spent between the Chinese Mainland and the Lower Mainland, Zhang has, over time, become very self-aware of the richness of her bicultural perspective — two ways of living, two political systems, two views on the role of the individual in society.

Ladner, also a UBC grad, can tell her a thing or two about politics on Canada’s west coast; the former journalist and co-founder of Business in Vancouver was at the forefront of municipal politics in the early 2000s as an NPA councillor and mayoral nominee, and has a brand name in local retail politics that’s literally on the map. Now a decade removed from political life, Ladner remains active in governance and policy as Chair of the Better Transit & Transportation Coalition, and past-Chair of the Board of the David Suzuki Foundation.

And, like the host of this podcast, Ladner also remains interested in the evolution of the liberal democratic model, the sustaining legacies of certain political and institutional norms, and of the collective (or perhaps majority) mindset of the new generation of leaders who will be in the thick of it. Zhang, for Ladner, is one of those emerging leaders to watch, to listen to.

Who does this generation trust? Are they integrated with the world they’re stepping into, or are they shaping it? Do they see problems with liberal democracy, and how are they dealing with it?

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According to Vancouver Green Party councillor Pete Fry, consultation won’t build us the city of the future.

“Where we’re going, we don’t need sticky notes on a wall,” he said (kind of). To Fry, consultation simply means, ‘the plan has already been written’ — not the right approach for the city-wide plan. Ironically, it was a lack of consultation that almost resulted in a freeway blowing through his Strathcona neighbourhood, but that’s a story for another time.

He wants co-creation. Neighbourhoods helping to design their communities. And if people — like, any people we assume, but at the very least highly organized people, unless he literally meant all people, but honestly we’re not entirely sure about any of this — if these people see something planned for their neighbourhood they don’t like? Council could, Fry suggested, “consider veto feedback on its merit”. (Really.)

That should go well.

This idea of co-creation, whether belonging to Fry alone, Vancouver’s Green Party, their fellow councillors, or (just maybe) staff themselves, is either a brilliant new way to govern, or a new word for old tricks. It could also be a moot point, as it is likely doomed to fail, though in principle we see it working already; certainly, one could interpret the recent rejection of the Granville Street townhouse development as one outcome of co-creation. No surprise to Green-watchers, of course, that all three Green councillors confoundingly voted against the application (“I stand by the Shaughnessy vote,” says Fry).

As he chats with Gord — and meat ‘n’ sizzle co-host Rob McDowell — Pete Fry is crystal clear on one thing: as keen as he is to co-create with his fellow citizens, there are still some hills upon which he’s willing to fight, and we presume die.

Like the pending Georgia and Dunsmuir viaduct removal. Or what we do with the city’s existing zoned residential capacity. And why reconciliation is part of decolonization.

More important, though, is what Pete Fry thinks Elizabeth Murphy really doesn’t get about our housing crisis…

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The Price Talks team hosted its first public podcast recording, held in front of a live library audience in the District of North Vancouver on June 26, 2019.

We’ve lobbed quite a bit of criticism at the North Shore generally over the past eight months, regarding recent decisions about housing, transportation and the public realm, but felt it was time to actually hear from residents.

Joining Gord for the discussion were:

  • Dominica Babicki, formerly Energy Manager with the District, currently completing her PhD in geography focusing on issues related to related to energy, buildings and climate change. A lifelong resident of the Edgemont neighbourhood, mother of teens, and part-time caregiver to both parents.
  • Justin Scott was born and raised in Deep Cove, went to Cap U, and is starting a new career in marketing. He currently lives in an apartment in West Vancouver, and is considering his long-term housing situation.
  • Victor Schwartzman is a Brooklyn native who came to Vancouver via a decades-long stop in Winnipeg. He currently serves on DNV’s Community Services Advisory Committee, hosts and produces Soapbox Radio and World Poetry Cafe on Coop Radio 100.5 FM, and in renting in a social housing complex in Parkgate.

Special thanks to Lynn Valley Town Centre resident, and community planner and facilitator, Steven Petersson for MC’ing and providing invaluable support throughout the evening.

Our sincere gratitude to everyone who attended the evening — a diverse and attentive crowd, with lots of participation and free-flowing discussion. We hope to do this again.

Last but not least, thank you to Meghan and her team at the Lynn Valley Branch of North Vancouver District Public Library. What a perfect facility, in a beautiful community — paradise tucked into the side of a mountain.

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There’s no two ways about it — TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit authority, is #1 in North America for year-over-year transit ridership growth. Seattle’s King County Transit is #2. And Kevin Desmond has led them both.

Desmond, now in his 4th year at the TransLink helm, didn’t emerge as a transit planning professional as a result of education, nepotism, or some cultish, hippie-era, preternatural NUMTOT trip (though, thanks to Gord, he’s now officially hip to the ELMTOT jive).

No, Desmond came to transit by mistake. An upbringing in the Bronx — OK, technically Westchester County, but he could walk to the #5 Dyer Avenue train — was followed by various positions Mayor’s Office of Operations during the mayoralty of Ed Koch, working with New York City agencies implementing public policy.

You know, typical New York stuff, like counting trees (there were 800,000), and helping untangle a parking revenue corruption scandal (big money). Which eventually led to an invitation to join the Department of Customer Services at New York City Transit. And so began Desmond’s love affair with transit — as he credits it, a cloying mixture of public policy, public service, and running a business. His great challenge in ’80s and ’90s New York City? Trying to figure out how to drive transit ridership up in a mega-city of abundant transportation options. His focus was to paint transit as a desirable consumer product, and to do so with the support of “a lean mean, growth-oriented consumer product organization”. And it worked.

Desmond tells Gord all the stories…of how he tried to bring more attention, and money, to the bus system in New York, when the subway tended to suck up all the oxygen….what prompted him to swap coasts in what eventually became a 12-year stint as chief executive of King County Transit in Washington State…how his efforts in the Puget Sound region culminated in a successful $54 billion tax package ballot measure for transit that included a multi-phase plan for high-capacity light rail (jealous much?)…and what ultimately led him to Vancouver.

He also waxes on about Transport 2050, the largest public engagement in TransLink’s history. But what we really wanted to know was what Desmond thinks of ride-hailing players like Uber and Lyft, slagged by Price Talks guests (among many, many others) as malignant, transit-killing tumours on the rumps of cities across the continent.

“Not something to be feared,” he claims. Why? You’ll have to listen to find out.

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More bus routes with greater capacity. Ground level retail in proximity to low-rise residential buildings. Communities designed with walking, cycling, and integrated multi-modal mobility in mind. And yes, rapid transit.

Surrey and Langley are two obvious examples of cities south of the Fraser taking slow, but steady and at times bold, steps towards the future, thanks in no small part to the work done by people like Paul Lee and Nathan Pachal.

In this second edition of our “Predecessor/Successor” series (see also Episode 31), Lee and Pachal explore the similarities between their own outsider experiences, and their respective roles promoting progressive, sometimes unpopular agendas, as both urbanists and leaders.

Lee worked in transportation planning for over three decades in both the private and public sectors, first working on implementation of the ’90s-era regional transportation plan, and most recently managing the City of Surrey’s light rail portfolio (may it rest in peace). Pachal is in his first full term, and fourth year, as councillor for the City of Langley; he’s also the indefatigable author of the long-running South Fraser Blog.

Both of Gord’s guests are used to talking to people about transportation investments, but as often from the prospective of what communities want, as what they really need. And dealing with the political decisions, as Lee learned, that often fit neither category. “Where do we need to win? Let’s build Skytrain there.”

Yet, despite occasionally blips in the process, there may be little doubt that there’s a line connecting the type of work Lee did in the 1990s and 2000s, and what Pachal has seen emerge in his short time on council. In this case (as he says with an almost astonished grin) a bus every 90 seconds in Langley City along Fraser Highway. “Walk 5 minutes, and you’re in a farm field.”

Transportation planners and policy geeks — like these two guys — know the real secret about growth in Metro Vancouver. The really exciting stuff is happening south of the Fraser.

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In 2015, the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) undertook a strategic planning process that might have invited a bit of cynicism — give a fancy name and lengthy timeline to a stock-in-trade exercise, and call it transformative.

That exercise, however, was Re-Imagine Downtown Vancouver, and it has already proven to be anything but typical. For one, it’s a 25-year legacy ‘vision’ project laid upon a foundation of rigorous research and public engagement. For another, it included recommendations that, unlike many corporate visions, were tied to tangible actions that would change the very face of downtown and how it would be utilized for the next generation.

And as a public expression of that vision’s intention, CEO Charles Gauthier committed DVBIA to “bring something to life” within the first year of releasing the report. So they did — award-winning Alley Oop, the laneway behind West Hastings street between Seymour and Granville, which was transformed from service corridor into a bright, playful public space.

An even better example of the Re-Imagine commitment? The governance structure of the DVBIA itself which, behind Gauthier’s leadership, was re-jigged — Board refreshed, committees disbanded, committees created — in order to empower and energize the organization, and better position it to realize the recommendations contained in the Re-Imagine report.

As a result of bringing the leaders of tomorrow to the forefront of the organization, the DVBIA has, of late, found itself championing a variety of initiatives that, as Gord put it, seem a bit foreign for a business-forward organization. Bike lanes. Child care. Living wages. Why would a business advocacy organization be involved in many of the same issues that are often believed to make business more challenging?

Gauthier answers this question, and many more, with the support of special guests Landon Hoyt and Julianne King of the SFU Public Square research team that led the project. Armed with three years’ worth of data and insights, they compare reality to the plan, and give an honest assessment of how well-positioned the DVBIA is to move forward, both with ongoing dialogue, and the commitment to change.

Championing the Vision: 3 Years into Re-imagine” will be presented to members at the DVBIA Annual General Meeting next Tuesday, as one of the cornerstones of the organization’s resolution to renew its mandate for another 10 years, which will be subject to a vote.

Guess what? We think it might just pass.

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“A lot of people thought we were wildly pessimistic as to the speed with which we were facing this crisis. Turned out we were wildly optimistic.

This is happening faster than those of us who started getting interested in it 30 years ago could possibly have conceived.”

In recognition of the 30 year anniversary of Clouds of Change, the 1989 report from the City of Vancouver’s Task Force on Atmospheric Change, Gord speaks with a key influencers for his originating motion to strike the task force, Mike Brown.

You may know Brown’s name as one of the co-founders of Ventures West (R.I.P.) in 1968, the prototype for institutional venture capital in Canada. Or perhaps for his role in helping Ballard Power land a $1.35 million investment in 1987, on the road to becoming the planet’s first major fuel cell player.

Or perhaps you don’t know his name at all. But you should. That’s because he represents one of the most important, and least appreciated (or perhaps least well understood) factors in the race to deal with the climate emergency — capital. Moolah. Money.

He’s a capitalist, but as we learn in this conversation, from a person who’s been thinking about and working on climate change at last as long as many of this podcast’s listeners have been alive, there may not be any other choice for dealing with this emergency than using the levers of capitalism to make things happen, and fast. The marketplace? All the money needed to power the requisite innovations — billions of dollars, all attracted to speculation about the future — is there.

So people like Brown work at advancing solutions, through places like the Institute for Breakthrough Energy Technology, his incubator focused on helping companies shorten the hardware commercialization timeframe, despite the fact that he’s made his money, and “the real issues are going to turn up after I’m dead.”

He doesn’t have to do all this. Giving colour and shape to his pessimism, and using it to make his rich friends feel a little discomfort. But he also knows that when he drives around his electric car, he ain’t burning sunshine. And so he wants those rich friends to part with some of their hard-won capital, and put it towards something that will make a real difference. As he has always done.

“When I started thinking about this problem, I conceived that it was going to be something that would face my great-grandchildren. By the time we got to the mid-90s, it was about my grandchildren. By the time we got to 2005, it was about my children. Now it’s about me.”

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