Transcripts of panel presentations at the SFU City Conversations event on October 15, 2015. The public conversation shared ideas about the relationship between politics and planning in the City of Vancouver, and about the challenges ahead for the new director of planning to follow the retirement of Brian Jackson at the end of 2016. The audience discussion transcripts can be found here.
NOTE: Transcripts have been edited for clarity. For complete remarks, please refer to the videos.
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Part 1: Introduction
Michael Alexander, Director, SFU City Conversations
Welcome. Today we are going to talk about politics in planning.
What is the relationship between Council and the City’s Planning Director? We are going to get a new Planning Director as our present one is retiring.
So what’s the relationship? Who makes what decisions? Who provides what advice? What do planners learn from Council? What do Councillors learn from planners?
We have two former Councillors, Marguerite Ford and Peter Ladner, to comment, and also Frances Bula, in my view the premier journalist in BC.
Marguerite, you are going to start.
Part 2: Presentations
Marguerite Ford, former City of Vancouver Councillor, 1976-1986
I think I’m here under false pretences because I didn’t actually have to hire a planner. I was elected after the first TEAM Council and they had everything in place to start with. So I benefited from their wisdom and their choice of planner.
The choice of planner really matters because the planner decides to a large degree to the kind of city we have. And planning is important because the design of cities decides to some degree the kind of people that live there.
I always used to say, if Paris didn’t have the boulevards, would Paris have a fashion industry? if you didn’t have the boulevards to see others and be seen? Paris got a fashion industry and New York got a garment industry is that because the cities were different?
One of the things that a director of planning is going to need to know is what makes a city, how planning affects the kind of City, how cities work.
Lots of planners are good at how cities look, but how they work is to me very important.
And selecting a new planner, the Council is going to have to choose a person who fits their ideas and hopefully they have been able to express what those ideas are to the public so that the public knows what they are likely to be getting.
It’s the job of the Council to inform the public and bring them along if necessary, and if they don’t bother to do that, there is going to be a lot of unhappiness and turmoil.
And the Mayor has to provide the leadership. It’s rare that a Council member has much interest or even knowledge of planning. Not everyone is a Walter Hardwick who did have that knowledge..
The Mayor has to provide the leadership, and it has to be a partnership with the new director of planning. I think that’s very important.
The Mayor and Council have to articulate what it is they are trying to do. They have to make sure people understand, and if it involves change from what people are used to, that takes quite a lot of time and serious consultation because people don’t change their ideas very readily.
But it’s not true that they don’t change their ideas at all. A lot of people say, it’s NIMBY, so we won’t pay any attention. But people are entitled to know what’s going on.
And the director of planning has to put that kind of change into context, so that it’s understandable, so that it’s actually workable, and so it does what is intended and not something different.
It takes a lot of negotiation and public consultation. I think that’s very important. And I do not think that having an open house with a bunch of nice posters does the job. It takes longer than that.
I think it’s very important that Council and the planning department and the director of planning work together and do their own jobs. It’s not up to the Council members to do the planning and it’s not up to the director of planning to do the politics, which sometimes happens.
So you have to be fairly clear in what it is you are trying to do and how you are trying to do it.
There are a lot of duties that the director of planning will have to have. Metro Vancouver planning is an important element because, when the region has been effective, there has been leadership from Vancouver. Both the Mayor and the planning department have to be involved, otherwise we are going to get a lot of sprawl, which affects Vancouver without Vancouver being able to do anything about it.
To accomplish any of the planning objectives, it’s up to Council to have the proper legislative framework in place so that the planning department can do what they need to do.
And the director of planning will have to have some autonomy. Along those lines, I dug up a quote from Art Phillip’s original inaugural address in 1973. He said, “Department heads should be given more independence and they in turn should assign more responsibility and authority to staff members throughout the civil service. I would like to see a general relaxation throughout the City staff where individual employees will feel freer to make judgements, offer suggestions, and bring about changes to the operations of City Hall.” That was spoken by a man with confidence – not all politicians feel that way. I think that’s great.
If I were to hire the new director of planning, I would look for someone who is well trained and has experience with the City; someone who is a good communicator and a good administrator to administer his or her own department; someone who is good at public participation, who understands planning principles well and can communicate them to the public and to Council, and someone to do a little education of Council members which is usually needed.
In other words, someone who is not be able to walk on water but looks as though he could.
Peter Ladner, former City of Vancouver Councillor, 2002-2008
Marguerite Ford mentioned Art Phillips in 1973. If you really want to see a really outstanding mayor, read his inaugural speech. It’s unbelievable. He laid out everything he was going to do in his term, who would do it, all the details. [“And then he did it. And he was there for only four years.” Marguerite Ford]
It’s quite remarkable how he transformed the city, starting with that plan all thought out before he sat down for his first meeting.
I’m going to throw out a few anecdotes, starting with my personal experience as a member of Council during the hiring of Brent Toderian, who was the director of planning before Brian Jackson.
Just to give an idea of the real politics of it, I remember being called into the City manager’s office one day. We knew that Larry Beasley was leaving and we needed a new planner. And we were told, “We’ve got this great guy, you’re going to love him, and we don’t really have anyone else.”
So it was basically a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, and to this day I don’t know who made that choice, and whether the Mayor was consulted — probably in another meeting earlier than with Council. But we really didn’t have much say. I think Larry Beasley had a lot to do with it. I think the City manager had a lot to do with it. And who knows who else?
And then, right after we approved the choice, I started getting these phone calls: “Do you know who this guy is? Do you know how hated he was in Calgary by the development community?” I didn’t know that, so I was calling Calgary. Finally, I came to the conclusion that he was probably hated to the extent that he was because he stuck up for principles of city planning ahead of the interests of developers who weren’t used to that. And I took that as an OK sign. But there were almost emergency meetings at UDI about how to get rid of this guy.
I’m going to go through a few things that the City planner has to deal with.
One is pressure from developers who provide financial pressure. They finance City politicians pretty much entirely, and there is political pressure that they apply. They lobby heavily. They have people who may be in this room who are expert at lobbying Council behind the scenes. And they also have a compelling presence because they have expertise. They know what it costs to build these things. They know the reality of trying to do different things that the City might want done. But they know if it can or can’t be done.
City planning also has to deal with all of the past plans, and there are so many. CityPlan was the grandmother of them all in 1995. I think it was Gordon Campbell who originally said, let’s get this thing going – let’s get the citizens to come up with these ideas. It was only supposed to work for 20 years, so it’s out of date, but it’s still hovering in the background.
And then there are all of these neighbourhood plans. There is the bird accommodation plan, the green roof plan, the laneway housing plan. It’s a miracle that someone could come to some sense with all of these sometimes overlapping and conflicting plans.
The city planner also has to think about the City’s revenues as cities become increasingly dependent on community amenity contributions and on development costs and charges to finance infrastructure and all kinds of things. And unfortunately, that is a factor in decision making and planning.
The planner has to protect the public interest, but which public? The ones who show up at Council meetings or at neighbourhood participation meetings? Or the ones who sign up to participate in online polling like PlaceSpeak? Or the ones who say, “Sorry we aren’t going to listen, I don’t want that social housing in my neighbourhood, I don’t care what you say?” And they can show up being 90 percent at a public meeting, and we go ahead and say, “we are having it anyway because it’s a Council policy.”
The planner has to be good at listening and reaching out, be a great communicator, be able to go to the neighbourhoods and listen, explain, and show how the ideas are going to fit into their neighbourhood.
The planner to deal with the regional perspective because we are part of a larger region, and this forces us to take in many people as part of the growth of the region, and there is no stopping those people coming here. So the planner has to find a way to fit them into existing neighbourhoods, as we can no longer fit them into industrial areas because they are being used. The planner also has to be looking at the jobs base of the region and saying, we have to protect those industrial areas, which do not have constituencies except for few businesses and lobbyists. But they are vital to the health of the city and we are constantly eroding them. Every time I see new housing in an industrial area, I know that the residential folks have had their way and we have had one more car repair place, parking lot or bus depot pushed out of town, to the detriment of the city.
The planner has to be a bit of a dreamer and designer. Planners were credited with the dream of the seawall that goes all around the waterfront of the city, which is one of the great triumphs of planning in the city.
And planners have to be constant negotiators. Because I see so many people here who know so much more about this than I do, I’m going to close with this and a comment that somebody made about Larry Beasley, who was the consummate negotiator. No matter whether he was negotiating with Council to accept his ideas or with the neighbourhood or with developers, it’s been said that when Larry was negotiating with you, you felt like he was making love with you. And when he finished you realized you’ve been screwed. [laughter] That’s the mark of a great planner.
Frances Bula, urban affairs journalist, Vancouver
I will remind everyone that probably the one who is going to have one of the biggest says in choosing the new planner is very likely the City manager who will be chosen first, and we don’t know who that is.
I have seen first-hand a lot of what Peter and Marguerite have said.
Here is a little story that they didn’t tell that I get over and over again with every planner I’ve ever reported on. And we have lots of off-the-record talks. A huge part of their job that a lot of people don’t realize, which has become apparent in some of the criticisms the last few years, is saying ‘no’ to developers who say, “I think I will buy this industrial land – any chance of rezoning it?” I’ve had them practically weeping on the phone to me saying, “I feel I can’t get anything done.“
If the City appears to wobble in any way on some of those issues, it just creates massive land speculation. And it will always be something different. For a couple years there was a run on hotels. Half the hotel owners in the city were phoning saying, “How about if we convert it to condos?” And another year it’ll be industrial land. Like with any capitalist system, they are looking at where they can buy cheap, sell high, and make a profit. So developers are always looking at all of the possibilities in the city and then phoning up the planning department to say, “What if we did this?”
I hear people criticize the planner or Council saying, “You approve everything that comes through, you are just patsies.” They don’t realize that what comes to Council is what has already made it through quite a testing process in the planning department.
There are four different masters that the head planner has to serve.
One master is the public, and there is not a unified public. There is a certain part of the public that says, “If I don’t get my own way on every issue, then you are a terrible undemocratic person.” And then there is a different public that says, “Tell us what the rules of engagement are; tell us what you are going to do with our input so that we know the limits of what we are able to do, or how we are able to modify things.”
And as Peter said, there is a public that doesn’t come out to meetings, and doesn’t scream and yell, and doesn’t wait around for three nights to present their opinions at public hearings. It’s very difficult to know what their true opinions are, and I know that the planning department has struggled with how to find out. They used to do surveys in the neighbourhoods, and that got hijacked by very energetic resident groups that would make sure that their group got in the maximum number of surveys. So the survey results became unrepresentative.
Another master is Council, who want the head planner to achieve their objectives, sometimes with an extremely aggressive agenda, but who also don’t want the planners to get Council in trouble. So the planners are supposed to push forward a really aggressive agenda but somehow appease all the community groups that don’t like it and make sure that Council never looks bad or comes across as not listening.
Then you have the developers, and they aren’t a unified group, either. I’ve been talking to people about coming here to speak about this issue and hear different things. One group really wants a planner who will bring a sense of design back to the city. There has been a tremendous focus in the last few years on accommodating density, trying to achieve rental, and all kinds of things, and there is a sense that design has completely gone by the boards.
There is another group of developers that just wants certainty on the money and the pro-formas. They say, “If you are going to make us pay CACs, that’s fine, but can we not have the 18-month negotiation back and forth where I have no idea what I’m going to pay? And where I can’t go on the basis of any previous deals because this one might be totally different?” And the smaller developers feel like they get totally ignored in the City because so much attention is paid to the big mega-developments that deliver huge CAC dollars.
And, finally there is another ‘master’ that we don’t think about – the people inside City Hall, like the people who work in the planning department and other departments. If you have a head planner who doesn’t inspire confidence and agreement inside City Hall, they can’t take things very far, and you get a certain amount of disarray that clogs up the works. I’ve certainly heard about that over the years. Oddly, I’ve never seen a planner who can do it all. There are some planners whose staff love them and the public hates them, or vice versa.
To finish up, I think there are some big issues that a new planner will have to address
One big issue is, do we really need a new comprehensive plan or do we just need someone who can articulate in a coherent way, over and over again, what’s going on? Because sometimes there are well-articulated plans and objectives, but the public doesn’t know about them, so they are surprised. For example: “How can you build townhouses in the back of a heritage building? This is a violation of the neighborhood plan.” And it’s actually not. It’s something that was written in a long time ago as a different plan to try to preserve heritage.
Another of the challenges will be trying to figure out how you can communicate authentically with the public in a way where one group doesn’t get to see itself as the one that should be listened to. There needs to be some new way, some innovative ways of talking to people, trying to solicit the opinions of those who don’t come out to meetings.
And finally, this person has to be a saint and also achieve world peace. [laughter]
Link to Audience Q&A Transcripts