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Council seeks new direction in ousting of Vancouver's chief planner

City of Vancouver planning department chief, Brent Toderian seen here at his office December 20, 2006 in Vancouver. Showing behind him the massive redevelopment area of water-encircled Vancouver's downtown.

Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Vision politicians decided their priority this term had to be a city-planning leader who could sell neighbourhoods on potentially controversial new plans for affordable housing.

That wasn't seen as Brent Toderian's strength. And so the six-year leader of the city's planning department was ousted – much to his surprise.

"There's always been some criticism, but I always felt a high level of alignment with council's vision and values on affordability and sustainability," a clearly disappointed Mr. Toderian said minutes after his departure was officially announced on Tuesday.

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"I did not resign, and I had been looking forward to continuing my work. But I agree that fit is important in any relationship and I acknowledge the city manager's and council's right to make this decision."

Although city manager Penny Ballem has made most staffing changes in recent years, the decision was made by Vision politicians concerned about bad relations between neighbourhood groups and the city over buildings the groups thought were too high, too dense or gave too much to developers.

"We needed performance on working more closely with the communities," said one politician. "Brent did a lot of work that was very positive. But we need an all-out effort to work with communities."

Almost everyone involved in Vancouver development acknowledged Mr. Toderian was dealt some bad cards.

He was in charge of managing during six years of controversial political efforts to add density to the city. His department was hit hard by staff losses from retirements, political departures and the recession. And he had a tougher challenge dealing with the public than previous planning director Larry Beasley as developers moved from projects on former industrial land downtown, which did not generate much concern, to building in established neighbourhoods.

But former councillor Ellen Woodsworth said residents were very upset by his style.

"People felt they weren't being heard."

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Development consultant Bob Ransford acknowledged that Mr. Toderian was a strong advocate for good urban design but wasn't as good at talking to neighbourhoods.

"You need to be able to communicate in a way that engages everybody. You need to broker all the different interests."

Mr. Toderian also didn't make many of the city's key developers happy. They complained frequently to politicians that his planning department appeared to be stalled and that they couldn't get a clear direction from him.

Mr. Toderian says now that, in a job like his, "relationships are always challenging."

"I've worked very hard to have a constructive and honest relationship with everyone," he said. "But it's not the planning director's role to agree with everyone. The planning director has to make sure the public interest is protected."

Mr. Toderian said he has already had offers of jobs from elsewhere, although he wouldn't confirm whether they were from Toronto or Calgary, which are both looking for planning directors.

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In the meantime, the City of Vancouver said in a news release that it is conducting an international search for a new director to tackle "housing affordability, economic development, citizen engagement and a broad sustainability agenda."


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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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