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Vancouver’s planning director: the three-year review

September 16th, 2009 · 9 Comments

Replacing the city’s two high-profile planning directors — Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee — in 2006 was a major hiring decision of former mayor Sam Sullivan’s administration. The man who was chosen to succeed them was Brent Toderian, a high-energy planner from Calgary who had big ideas about urbanism.

It’s been three years since Toderian was hired and, one thing is for sure, there isn’t anyone in the city’s small planning/architecture/development world who doesn’t have a strong opinion about him. Partly that’s just because he’s really out there, arguing his case, as readers of this blog will know from seeing his comments here.

I certainly had my ears filled in the past couple of years, as I’ve covered the hall, and in particular in the past few months, as I was doing research for a story about what impact he’s having in the city.

My latest column in Vancouver magazine takes a look at what he’s accomplished — and where he’s run into some walls.

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  • ” . . . he needs to be savvy about steering his ideas through the local minefield.” Ummmm, really!

    Madam you attribute too much to a civic functionary: habit forming history more than who does what and why govern urban semiotics.

    Anglo centric cities accrete according to two essential historic phenomena: land as commodity and fractional reserve banking:

    You write, ” . . . developers themselves, who are the lifeblood of the city’s revenues, election campaigns, and main area of control—land use.”

    “Life blood” eh! Wow no wonder we are gasping for breath!

    And, ” . . . fed up with both his abrasive personal style . . . spoilt brats!

    If we can liberate ourselves from the “paradise” and “personality” syndrome and see that all urban agglomerations, after WWll, are essentially the same, driven by the two historic phenomena, manifesting as hyper speculation and number crunching . . .

    . . . we may be able to conclude the real purpose of the city, is the creation of wealth and opportunity for citizens to live in reasonable, affordable comfort and security free from debilitating noise, stink and ugliness . . .

    . . . and of course free from the mind numbing rhetoric gushing out of self-serving “marketiers'” disingenuous hyperbole!

    Despite highfaluting rhetoric the short-term bottom line is all that counts. And now ask, why cities, not only Vancouver, are debt ridden and dysfunctional.

  • MB

    Peaking of highfalutin’ rhetoric, Urbanisimo seems to have changed his tune. Not too long ago the cabal of planners led by Larry Beasley was responsible for every crack in the pavement and mile high alien towers on the dark side of the moon. Now it’s the speculators, marketeers and bean counters.

    Anyone who alienates the development community of Calgary — who have practically uncontained stratospheric power to create blandness orders of magnitude greater than Vancouver — is a good lad in my books.

    I just hope Toderian now finds country music intolerably bland too.

    Regarding Bob Ransford’s comments, I often nod my head in agreement when he writes about sustainability and even the now rather stale New Urbanistic approach to re / building cities, but his comments on lowering DCC’s and all things that reflect the actual cost of development to society gets stuck in my craw. He should try working on the other side of the counter some day to witness first hand what many, many developers attempt to get away with.

    Not all of them. The best one’s hire the most talented and experienced consultants who meet a municipality’s basic requirements (you really can’t approve plans that are incomplete, non–existant, do not meet legal requirements, or are subject to excessive petty bickering), and they are often appreciated by city employees more and receive approval and are moved on before the less competent ones.

    Toderian has entered a tough game and has held up. Vancouver has undergone some very unique challenges, inclkuding getting special permission to violate the Vancouver Charter to assume major debt for the Olympic Village. It is illegal for cities to go in debt these days. Burnaby, for one example, has reserves that add up to about $500 million in the black. Vancouver’s land assets are worth a coule of billion. It is the province that has the real power, and that includes, much to oiur disadvantage, the ability to put us in the hole by $60 billion over the next few years.

  • Joe Just Joe

    Great article Frances, I’m surprised you managed to get a few people on record to voice concern about Brent. The feeling is as you know very wide spread.
    That is not to say Brent’s a bad guy, he just can not express his vision for the city in a way that Larry could. With Larry the developers knew what would be asked, what they would need to give up and although they didn’t like giving up so much they dealt with it as they knew the costs going in and could work with it. Nowadays there is no clear idea on what the city is going to be asking for, it leads to huge delays, reworking of plans and frustation all around.
    Larry had a grand vision for the city and although it was never written everyone knew what the pieces of that puzzle looked like, with Brent we don’t have an idea what the puzzle is.
    We had hopes that he needed time to express his vision, but it’s now been 3yrs and we still don’t know. If he can turn it around and express his vision clearer he’ll do fine.
    I’ve acutally learned more about him from his blog then from him directly.

  • MB. The celebrity planner is not good!

    . . . for city or planner!

    Planner as celebrity is a media creation to boost tourism: world class, paradise, leading edge et. al. very disappointment when reality strikes: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. HUH!

    I am consistent: my opinion of the Vancouver Planning department, or to be more precise, the Vancouver plan check department, and its incipient celebrities have not lived up to its billing . . .

    Within its corporate structure is an urban design department. Why? There is no evidence, within the city, of urban design!

    Historic celebrity planners:

    BARON HAUSSMANN: beautiful Parisian boulevards and the Communards: big mistake!

    Porfirio Diaz: El Reforma and the Mexican civil war: bigger mistake.

    ROBERT MOSES: the Triborough and Battery Bridges, favouring auto traffic over public transit: big, bigger mistake!

    (Alright check COD)

  • I decided to speak on the record because I care about the city, and know that the Planning Director, and planning department can have a significant impact on how it looks and how it functions.

    I first got to know Brent before he came to Vancouver. We spoke on the same panels at different planning conferences, and I found him to be very bright, articulate and thought provoking.

    When he arrived in Vancouver, there were some developers ready to dismiss him, since they had been told that many Calgary developers didn’t like him and were happy to see him go. I didn’t feel that way. While he was no Larry Beasley or Ray Spaxman, he was someone with strong ideas, a mix of public and private sector experience, and an ability to express his ideas quite well.

    For most of 2007, I was not in Vancouver. But when I returned I found that there was a high level of animosity between Brent and many members of the architectural and development community. I spoke to him about this and urged him to become more open to dialogue with UDI and others. To some degree, this has happened.

    I cannot comment on what it is like to work for Brent, but as someone who has worked with him, I believe he needs to become as good a listener as he is a talker! (I can say this since I suffer from the same problem!)

    In a previous posting on this blog, I referenced Edward de Bono’s book I Am Right You Are Wrong. This book should be compulsory reading for all of us….it reveals why we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the other person is wrong when we are certain we are right.

    In a way, I would like to think this article by Frances will be a bit of a watershed in terms of how Brent conducts himself as Director of Planning. He is right…he’s not here to win a popularity contest. But he is here to earn the respect of those with whom he works. At the moment, I think his somewhat argumentative and abrasive style is too much for many people, and he needs to tone it down. If this happens, we will all be the beneficiaries.

    A final comment…a saying from my father.


    Sometimes we have to listen carefully to others so we can hear both what is being said, and the motivation behind it. We may not agree, but we do need to try and understand.

  • “He is right…he’s not here to win a popularity contest.”

    For good or ill, every facet of life (and work) is a popularity contest IMO. Unless you have the absolute power to command things to be so, you’re going to have to get ‘buy-in’ from others.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Interesting that a guy earning $175K a year claims he can’t afford to buy a place in town. I guess he’s holding out for something better than a 400 square foot condo in a monotonous glass tower, or, god forbid, a cramped laneway house where the lights dim every time the toaster pops.

  • Lookin’ for a Leader

    Joe Just Joe… ditto!
    I think that many in the development, design and planning community are looking for the future blueprint for Vancouver and turning to the Planning Department for that vision. The general plans for the city are now outdated and we need a new perspective; a more mature persective, that balances liveability, sustainability and economic growth.
    Brent has not outlined this vision yet and alienating people is not going to help. I believe Brent has made the fundamental mistake common to poor leaders- he doesnt value his human resources nor do he know how to utilize their abilities.

  • Frances Bula

    Dear Lookin’

    Just have to chime in here to say that your last sentence doesn’t really ring true with what I know about city hall. From what I’ve heard, if there is one group that is pretty positive about Brent, it’s the people he leads at city hall, who feel like they’re respected and given a say. If you have other info, I’d like to know about it.