When Gregg Lintern is throwing shade, it’s hard to tell. “I do challenge some characterizations of planners,” Mr. Lintern said, gently putting down his coffee cup, ”as masters of the universe. One of your colleagues, back in the 1960s, had some things to say about that, and I don’t think the label really fits.”
He was talking about Jane Jacobs, and Mr. Lintern — who was recently named the city of Toronto’s chief planner — is definitely the kind of know-it-all bureaucrat that Ms. Jacobs hated. He is a Torontonian, diplomatic and very much ready to listen.
And he may be just the right person to guide the city’s growth in this period of intense building and of major shifts in how planning is governed.
Mr. Lintern has sizable shoes to fill. He succeeds Jennifer Keesmaat, a skilled communicator who became Toronto’s most outspoken staff member and one of the best-known people at city hall.
He surely will be less visible. But Mr. Lintern, a 25-year veteran of municipal planning, says the department won’t change dramatically under his leadership. “We’re running with it,” he said recently over breakfast. “We have a good, strong work program and good ideas.”
Mr. Lintern cited equity as an overarching theme: He is concerned about the growing inequality in Toronto, and how wealth and new development “are landing on the ground.” This is a disturbing trend, in which the city’s planning regulations are playing a significant role. He also pledges to pay attention to the city’s postwar suburbs with an eye to creating successful growth. “We spend a lot of time thinking about downtown, but increasingly growth will be going outside the downtown,” he said. “We have to pay more attention to how that growth can manifest itself, and how that can provide opportunity for more people.”
To make that happen, “the linchpin issue is transit access,” he said. Transit “brings access to opportunity” in the central city. “My goal is to see that that formula is reproduced across the city, bringing that to greater numbers of people.”
Raised in Etobicoke, Mr. Lintern is a veteran of local planning. He was head of community planning for Etobicoke York from 2005 to 2011, then for Toronto East York from 2011 until last year, overseeing development in the city’s busiest area and including high-profile planning efforts such as Mirvish Village. He was acting chief planner before Ms. Keesmaat’s tenure, and has filled that role again since she left in September.
Mr. Lintern “knows the city,” says long-time colleague George Dark, a prominent private-sector planner and partner at the firm Urban Strategies. “He really exquisitely knows how the city’s machinery works and what doesn’t work.
“And don’t mistake that quiet demeanour for a lack of activity.”
Joe Cressy, a downtown city councillor who has worked extensively with Mr. Lintern, says that “Gregg is a big thinker, and he has a vision for where Toronto needs to go in the 21st century.
“That is for a more walkable, dense and more liveable city. And in Gregg you have someone who’s not just a big thinker but also someone who has a record of making impact,” he says.
Mr. Cressy cites the planning of Rail Deck Park, on the large scale, and on the smaller scale, Mr. Lintern’s move to relax parking requirements on new developments in and around downtown. The latter is more important than it sounds: Underground parking is expensive to build, at about $50,000 a space in Toronto, and inflates the cost of housing for home buyers whether or not they drive. Progressive planners across North America are taking aim at parking requirements.
Much of what city planners deal with is land use planning. Particularly in this area, the landscape changed dramatically this winter with the end of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the provincial appeals body that oversaw planning decisions. Its replacement, the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT), will have a more limited ability to overrule local decisions.
Mr. Lintern says this will mean “more municipal control and more municipal responsibility.” It “makes us masters in our own house,” he adds.
The transition in Toronto, which Mr. Lintern is navigating, may be bumpy.
The OMB was often characterized — including by Ms. Keesmaat — as overriding planning policies that reflect the will of the people. Mr. Lintern shares that sentiment, but he acknowledges that the OMB “became a policy-setting body by default.”
The OMB was, in fact, an integral part of the planning system, because there are many gaps and inconsistencies in the city’s planning policy.
The big-picture document, the Official Plan, calls for growth in certain areas, but the Zoning By-Law, which addresses the details for particular sites, is mostly years if not decades out of date. Most developments, however innocuous, require haggling over what, where and how tall. The development industry complains about the time, risk and cost associated with this sort of process; certainly this lack of clarity provides a disincentive for smaller projects.
Mr. Lintern hopes to reform the city’s zoning bylaw – to create clarity, which he argues would be “good for communities and developers.” Development “should be more of a plug-and-play exercise,” he argues. And, in general, he’s keen to do more detailed planning of neighbourhoods. “Proactive planning – that’s the goal.”
In order to accomplish that, he’ll need to convince city council to make the right decisions. Ms. Keesmaat did not always succeed at this. Arguably the highlights of her tenure were her advocacy on two transportation files: to build LRT in Scarborough instead of a subway extension, and then to bring down, rather than rebuild, the Gardiner Expressway East. Both times, she was right. And both times, her ideas lost out.
Mr. Lintern was at council a few weeks ago when councillors deferred planners’ Transform Yonge scheme to rebuild Yonge Street in North York, a classic example of car-driven politics interfering with good city planning. But rather than argue, he took their questions calmly and firmly. He is adamant that being chief planner “is not a political job.” “I’m a realist around all the mountains you have to climb,” he said. “It’s not a straight line to some of these solutions. It never has been.”
“Gregg, in my experience, articulates that same city-building vision as Jennifer [Keesmaat],” Mr. Cressy said. “I would say that his style – soft-spoken but with the same message – perhaps resonates better with some of my colleagues on council.”
Mr. Dark has a similar assessment: “Jennifer was the provocateur, and Gregg clearly is more about implementation. Maybe you need both kinds of personalities over the long term to move things along.”