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Art Phillips, Mayor of Vancouver, stands on the roof of Vancouver City Hall in November 1972. (The Globe and Mail)
Art Phillips, Mayor of Vancouver, stands on the roof of Vancouver City Hall in November 1972. (The Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Visionary mayor Art Phillips remade Vancouver Add to ...

Art Phillips had it all – tall, storybook handsome and, by the time he hit 35, gloriously rich. Yet something gnawed at the brilliant investment manager. He didn’t like what was happening around him. Vancouver, he thought, that beautiful community by the sea where he’d grown up and made his fortune, was losing its attraction as a place to live.

And so, rather than spending his days increasing and enjoying his millions, hanging out with the wealthy tennis and golf club set, Art Phillips rolled up his silk sleeves and plunged into the mire of Vancouver civic politics.

His decision led eventually to four eventful years as mayor in the mid-1970s that were pivotal in changing the face of Canada’s third largest city, just when it seemed to be headed for pell-mell, American-style development that was ruining so many cities south of the border.

Aided by an exceptionally skilled group of similar-minded civic reformers who gathered around him, Art Phillips said no to freeways, no to dark, lofty office towers and no to closed doors and powerful bureaucrats running city hall like a fief, with elected councillors functioning as little more than rubber stamps and the public treated with indifference.

At the same time, he said yes to green space, yes to citizen participation and better neighbourhoods, yes to heritage, yes to some of the most innovative housing projects in North America, and above all, yes to livabilty.

“It was all about doing things differently,” said Mr. Phillips, in a 2005 interview. “It was about bringing people in, not throwing them out, and making the city a place to enjoy, where people wanted to live.”

Art Phillips was Vancouver’s first modern mayor, and, though serving only two terms, he is still considered one of its best.

When he died March 29 at 82, not only had Mr. Phillips lived a remarkably charmed and successful life, including many years as a pioneering investment manager, with a long, happy marriage to glamorous ex-TV host and former B.C. finance minister Carole Taylor, but he could see evidence of the difference he made to his beloved city, wherever he went on his regular urban walks.

The densely populated West End is full of trees and traffic calmers, the entrance to Stanley Park is parklandand not the hotel that had been planned, there are new seawalls, urban pocket parks, and tens of thousands of people living downtown, not to mention the bold False Creek housing development on previously grim industrial land.

“Is Vancouver today the same city that he left as mayor in 1976? No, it’s not,” said former premier Gordon Campell, who served as Mr. Phillip’s young executive assistant and later a three-term mayor himself. “But the city he started during his four years is certainly the foundation on which the city we see today is built.”

Like Mr. Campbell, urban affairs analyst Gordon Price of Simon Fraser University considers Mr. Phillips tops among city mayors.

“He established institutions and ways of doing things that no one’s ever altered. All succeeding mayors have built on what Art did,” said Mr. Price. “It was a brilliant moment in time.”

Arthur Phillips was born in 1930, in Montreal, to a wealthy retired engineer and his younger, French-born wife. The couple soon moved to Vancouver, where they settled on the city’s affluent west side.

A good athlete, Mr. Phillips attended Lord Byng high school and the University of British Columbia. He was a star basketball player at both institutions, forever termed “the lanky pivot” by hackneyed sports writers for Ubyssey, the student newspaper.

He also got the investment bug early, fuelled by a deep love of crushing opponents in Monopoly.

“He was very aggressive,” recalled lifelong friend Michael Ryan. He noted that Mr. Phillips’s prowess at the popular property board game also signalled his future as mayor. “It was if he already wanted to run his own city.”

Mr. Phillips was still a third-year commerce student when he made his first investment, teaming up with Mr. Ryan to buy a stagnant, penny-stock mining firm. “We held it for nearly seven years, and it did very well,” said Mr. Ryan.

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