Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brent Toderian: Director of Planning 2006 to 2012

My father was fond of saying that we judge people by what they say and do, but expect others to judge us by our motives.

I thought of this when I awoke yesterday morning to a news story by Frances Bula that Vancouver City Council was terminating 'without cause' its contract with Brent Toderian. While I was surprised, I was not shocked since I had heard a rumour a week earlier that this might happen. Nonetheless, in a city that celebrates urban planning and its planners, this was a big story and I was invited into the CBC studio, along with Frances Bula, to speculate on the reasons behind his firing (and yes, it was a firing) and what might be next .

It was not surprising that Frances broke the story since she is well connected to the Vancouver political, real estate and planning scene. Coincidentally, a few years ago she wrote a comprehensive profile of Brent in Vancouver Magazine It is well worth re-reading. Frances contacted me when doing the story and wrote the following:

A few people will talk, cautiously (about Toderian). “He’s achieved a lot in a relatively short time. He’s a bright young man, but he’s starting to generate discontent with his personal style,” says Michael Geller, an innovative development consultant who has, to his surprise, ended up in public arguments with Toderian.

Yesterday I speculated that some of the qualities that helped Brent be 'annointed' by Larry Beasley, and subsequently appointed to this key national position at the young age of 36, contributed to his demise. He was bright, strong-willed and opinionated. A very good talker, he was not always as good a listener. As Frances noted, he upset many developers, but he also upset community leaders. At the same time, he was always a hard-working,very committed, principled person who lived and breathed planning seven days a week.

Yesterday some people were suggesting Brent was fired because he didn't do what the developers wanted, while others speculated he was fired because he did do what the developers wanted!

The Mayor stated his contract was being terminated on the advice of the City Manager. The Mayor complimented Brent for his accomplishments but noted that he didn't fit-in with the direction the city wanted to go with respect to affordable housing...few people I spoke with understood what this meant but no doubt we'll learn more.

From knowing Brent over six years, and speaking to people who worked in City Hall, there was no doubt in my mind, (and that of Jeff Lee, who covers City Hall for the Vancouver Sun and who coincidentally filled in for Frances Bula on yesterday's CKNW Civic Affairs Panel) that a key factor in his demise was his challenging relationships with senior city officials, and especially the City Manager. Those who know Penny Ballem well suggested that it was inevitable that she and Brent would part ways.

Some people are mourning Brent's departure. I received a note from a young architect who worried that Brent's departure means the developers are getting their way in the city and there will be no one to stand up to them. While I do not agree with this, there is no doubt many developers will be happy to try their luck with a new Director of Planning.

I know that Brent is proud of a number of his accomplishments over the past six years. While he did not initiate EcoDensity, he and his staff made it real. Similarly, he oversaw the implementation of the Laneway Housing Program. While Andrea Reimer and I both questioned why we were rezoning tens of thousands of single family lots to undertake a 100 unit trial program, Brent was determined to make this a permanent program by formally changing single family zones to allow the trial program to proceed. He may well have been right.

Brent was proud of the work undertaken with respect to the preservation and addition to its View Corridors. Again, I did not agree with the approach of assessing views from fixed points, rather than a more 'dynamic' assessment, but many others applauded the work.

Brent was proud of the work his department did along the Cambie Corridor. Again, I was not as infatuated as he was with the potential proliferation of predominantly mid rise buildings all the way from King Edward to Marine Drive. However, there is no doubt that his vision has led to many real estate transactions along the street and significant changes are coming.

One thing that bothered Brent was an oftentimes repeated quote attributed to him by Frances Bula that being Director of Planning is not a popularity contest. He felt that this implied that he didn't try to reach out to different groups. While at the beginning his relationships with the development community were limited, in more recent years, he appeared regularly at UDI luncheons and other industry and professional events.

What I think he meant is that a lot of planning decisions are unpopular, and developers will often be upset with planning decisions, as will community groups. Planning is not a popularity contest... its more important to do the right thing than the popular thing.

With this, I am in total agreement with Brent. Otherwise, we will not see the implementation of the EcoDensity ideas, including transformation of single family properties into new housing forms, new arterial development, and a broader array of affordable housing choices.

There is much more that could be written about Brent's time as Director of Planning...and I hope it will be...but for now, I just want to conclude by wishing him well in future endeavours and thank him for his principled approach to planning and the many good things he did accomplish. And like a good wine, I suspect he'll get better as he gets older!


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