Vancouver lost the trust of its resident groups in recent years, its city manager acknowledges. Now, Sadhu Johnston is hoping to repair that with a director of planning.
Gil Kelley, currently the director of citywide planning for San Francisco, impressed the hiring committee because of his experience in working together with many different groups in the cities where he has been a planner.
"He has had experience in juggling those competing interests in way that comes across as collaborative," Mr. Johnston said in an interview in advance of Mr. Kelley's arrival on Sept. 15.
One example of Mr. Kelley's ability to do that was the way he brought together different groups at odds in south Portland when he was the planning director in that city, prior to leaving for San Francisco.
The Oregon Health and Science University was trying to expand, a nearby neighbourhood on the Willamette River south of downtown was being built out, and there was a lot of angst about everything from traffic problems to business disruption to heritage.
Mr. Kelley facilitated a process and solutions that calmed everyone down, including the idea of building a gondola to transport people from the river level up to the plateau where the university campus is.
"That was unique," Mr. Johnson said.
That kind of skill is going to be called on heavily in Vancouver, which has seen increasing antagonism between neighbourhood groups and the city.
Vancouver had once been seen around North America as a city where planners had a strong role. But as developers – having built out most of the former industrial land surrounding the downtown peninsula – began moving into established neighbourhoods with proposals, resident groups complained the Vision Vancouver council was ramming through approvals without listening to local input.
More planning decisions were being made in the mayors' office and at city council, reducing the role of city planners, said a former director of planning who was fired by council for reasons never made clear publicly.
"We're going to have to rebuild the culture of smart planners making smart decisions," said Brent Toderian, who is enthusiastic about the city's decision to hire Mr. Kelley. "Senior managers are having to build staff's trust in them after several years of having their decisions crushed."
He called Mr. Kelley a "smart man with integrity."
The change in the city's planning climate began shortly after Mayor Gregor Robertson was elected in 2008. The antagonism between the city and residents accelerated when many former city planners started issuing public statements in opposition to particular projects.
Mr. Johnston, who was named city manager last September, is working hard to smooth the divisions.
He has invited many of those former planners to meetings in recent months to get their opinions on how to approach planning differently and how to re-organize the department.
Mr. Johnston said those former planners will hold a workshop for Mr. Kelley to help introduce him to Vancouver's unique planning culture and history. It will be facilitated by respected former planning director Larry Beasley.
The new planning director will also be asked to take charge of the effort to bring more affordable-housing solutions to Vancouver on a city-wide basis, Mr. Johnston said.
Mr. Kelley worked in the planning department at Berkeley for 10 years, then was the director of planning for the City of Portland from 2000 to 2009. He was hired as the director of citywide planning in San Francisco in April, 2014.
His departure for Vancouver has come as a surprise to many there, according to the leader of the city's high-profile San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation.
Mr. Kelley did not return a call from The Globe and Mail.