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municipal affairs

Brian Jackson will serve as the new general manager of planning and development, according to a news release issued July 24, 2012, by the City of Vancouver.

Vancouver has reached out to its suburban neighbour to the south for a new head of planning and development.

The city manager and council have chosen Brian Jackson, Richmond's acting general manager of planning and development, to lead the way in a place with a global reputation for pioneering a dense but liveable downtown.

It's also a city with famously complex tussles among developers, energetic community groups and councillors, as each fights to get a faster planning system, social benefits and political wins.

Vancouver's mayor and communications team are signalling strongly to all sides that Mr. Jackson will make their lives better, emphasizing both his skill at negotiating efficiently with developers and his ability to incorporate Richmond's unique affordable-housing demands into projects.

"Brian brings the complete package – a big-picture planner with a pragmatic approach to community and development. We're very lucky to have him take on this more senior role," Mayor Gregor Robertson said.

He was referring to the fact that Mr. Jackson, who starts work Aug. 27, will be the general manager of planning and development, not just the director of planning, the title held by the two previous high-profile leaders in Vancouver – Larry Beasley and, until he was fired in January, Brent Toderian.

In Richmond, Mr. Jackson has mainly focused on working through projects that have flooded into the city after it developed a plan to create villages around its Canada Line stations. He also negotiated a deal for Richmond that will see condo builders pay to build a new station at Capstan Way.

But some critics say the Vision council is also clearly signalling that it wants an administrator rather than a visionary, with its change of title and choice of someone who has been more of an implementer of plans in Richmond.

"That [title] tells you everything you need to know – it's about development, it's not about planning. It certainly suggests to me that council wants someone who's an effective administrator," said former Non-Partisan Association city councillor Gordon Price.

Mr. Price knows, and likes, Mr. Jackson personally from when the latter was a planning student in Vancouver in the late 1970s, before Mr. Jackson went on to be the manager for the City of Toronto's waterfront development and later a planner with the multinational architecture, engineering and planning firm IBI Group in Toronto and later California.

Former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth expressed similar disappointment. "Richmond is not a model city for Vancouver and he's just being hired to implement what's already set up. He's not coming in with a strong, creative bent of working with neighbourhoods and developing affordable housing."

However, others who have worked with Mr. Jackson describe him as both a good big-picture planner and someone who has a talent for connecting with communities.

"He was very much part of the visionary planning stage for us," said Steve Schibuola, the director of the IBI's San Diego office, which handled planning for the regional authority building Los Angeles's Gold Line and its 11 stops into the San Gabriel Valley. Mr. Jackson worked there until he took the job in Richmond four years ago. "He has a real commitment to sustainability and he's good at consensus-building. But he's not a blue-sky planner. He can work a deal." Mr. Schibuloa also praised Mr. Jackson's "boundless energy and optimism."

Another former Vancouver planner, who also worked with him in California, said he's very warm and friendly, but tends to be low-key and focused on rigorous planning rather than being out in the media. "He's very careful," Neal Lamontagne said.

In Richmond, he was described by both the city and a community group, Turning Point Recovery Society, as someone who has been successful at negotiating Richmond's demand for low-cost housing from developers. Richmond is the only city in the region with an inclusionary zoning policy that requires all developers either to contribute to the city's housing fund or build units that are designated affordable.

"We're certainly going to miss him," Richmond communications director Ted Townsend said.

The Urban Development Institute welcomed the news, saying Mr. Jackson "has demonstrated a strong ability to bring stakeholders together and work effectively with the development industry."