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Vancouver looking for a new chief planner again after only three years

August 3rd, 2015 · 25 Comments

This is a week old but I was in an internet challenged zone after I filed my story, so here it is: The Brian Jackson retirement/resignation, which I know many in this group will have thoughts on, especially about his remarks that ex-city staff were extraordinarily interventionist as they lobbied against various decisions of his department.

I should note that one group who was coming to have some respect for his work was developers, after he lobbied to have the community amenity contributions extracted by the city for rezonings set to a standardized level, at least along Cambie, so that property buyers (and sellers) would have some idea in advance of how much of the land lift they’d have to hand over to the city.

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 26, 2015 6:18PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 27, 2015 11:59AM EDT

Vancouver’s top planner is resigning only three years after being appointed to a job that has been at the centre of uproar over rapid development.

And Brian Jackson blames the unusual efforts former planning staff have made to increasingly contradict and oppose what his department is doing, at a time when the city is trying to accomplish a lot on many fronts. The previous planner was in the post for six years; the one before that did the job for at least 10 years.

“There were a variety of factors, but having a group of former planners criticizing council, criticizing the planning department, criticizing myself, was not particularly helpful,” said Mr. Jackson, who is 60, and retiring.

He said Vancouver, a place where he otherwise enjoyed his challenges and admired his staff, is the only city he’s known where that happens.

“It is a culture that has evolved here of planners eating their young.”

In recent months, one large group of former city planners has been making the case publicly that Mr. Jackson and his department should rethink the plans for a new tower and waterfront office district near the city’s train station.

Last fall, a former urban-design specialist, now working at the University of British Columbia, also created a minor sensation related to Mr. Jackson days before the November civic election. In a comment on a local blog, Scot Hein implied that Mr. Jackson pushed staff, against their wishes, to produce a plan for a cluster of high-density towers around the Commercial-Broadway station, in response to pressure from above him at city hall.

The proposed towers were part of a Grandview-Woodland area plan that had already provoked controversy in the left-leaning neighbourhood and prompted the ruling Vision Vancouver council to pour attention and apologies into the area in the months before the election.

Mr. Jackson also said that in addition to the difficult culture, the Vision Vancouver council’s agenda is so ambitious that it really requires someone to be “on top of their game 24/7.”

After a vacation away from Vancouver to decide whether he wanted to keep dealing with those two factors, he came back decided on no.

Mr. Jackson, a UBC graduate who had been a planner in Richmond, California and Toronto, was announced as the general manager of planning in July, 2012, from among more than 100 candidates, six months after the city fired its previous head planner, Brent Toderian.

Mr. Jackson walked into a city where angry resident groups had sprung up in several neighbourhoods to fight what they said were rezonings and plans that packed too much density into their areas.

For about 20 years, Vancouver had accommodated massive development without much controversy, in part because most of it was taking place on former industrial land on the fringes of the downtown peninsula.

However, as that land was built out, developers started looking at established neighbourhoods for new project sites. Then mayor Sam Sullivan also began promoting a concept called EcoDensity in 2006, which focused on how to generate a lot more density throughout Vancouver as a way of reducing urban impacts on the environment.

City council, planners, and developers appeared to be unprepared for the backlash that erupted, when the same kinds of towers that had been quietly approved for years suddenly began generating demonstrations at city hall, lawsuits and bitter complaints.

Mr. Jackson came in promising to be more consultative and to build on what Vancouver had done well – creating density that fit with neighbourhoods and was livable.

He was successful in getting new plans for the West End, the Downtown Eastside and Marpole passed, after lengthy consultations and major adjustments in communities that had originally mounted protests.

Behind the scenes, he could be called on to cut through bureaucratic knots that were stalling projects, sometimes private ones but also non-profit developments.

Councillors and the mayor’s office always defended his work. In the city news release, Mayor Gregor Robertson was quoted as saying Mr. Jackson was a “true leader” who made a significant impact on the city. City manager Penny Ballem said that what he’d been able to achieve in his time was “remarkable.”

However, his most persistent critics, a small but vocal circle, painted him as someone just carrying out the orders of his political masters.

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