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The better Vancouver becomes, the worse it is for some residents, says the city's new chief planner

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver, which is beset by high anxiety over homelessness, growth, development and the soaring price of housing, is in a prime position to reset itself, says the city's new chief planner.

"There's a moment of ripeness to ask the big questions and make some big moves," said Gil Kelley, who was recruited from San Francisco to head up the city's beleaguered planning department. "It's a time to look at where is the city heading in the long term."

He said Vancouver is suffering from a bewildering dilemma that has become common among attractive 21st-century cities: The better it becomes, the worse it is for some residents.

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"Like most global cities now, we're dealing in Vancouver with this conundrum of being highly liveable and prosperous but also dealing with that other piece, which is everybody wants to be there. It's our obligation to try to reconcile these twin forces and deal with the social effects of gentrification and displacement."

Mr. Kelley, 63, worked in Portland, Ore., for 10 years as director of planning before becoming director of citywide planning in San Francisco and in Berkeley, Calif., for 10 years before that.

Vancouver's planning department, once admired in North America for its ability to shape development sensitively, with benefits for residents, has gone through a rocky few years. The Vision Vancouver council elected in 2008 hired a new city manager and new planner to carry out ambitious ideas about encouraging development near transit or with dedicated rental units. At the same time, developers started moving into established neighbourhoods after having built out much of the downtown peninsula. That led to a rise in friction between the city and resident groups.

Mr. Kelley, who made his first public appearance at a speech last Wednesday after two weeks on the job, praised the city's new city manager, Sadhu Johnston, and the institutional changes he has made, setting Vancouver on a new path.

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And he said that change, along with Vancouver's historic willingness to set bold new directions, puts this city in a better position than San Francisco to grapple with the challenges of 21st-century cities.

"I'm coming from a city that is virtually in crisis. We in San Francisco are losing this old city," Mr. Kelley said in his speech. He noted that San Francisco gains 70,000 people every year – mostly wealthy and childless – and loses 60,000, mostly low-income and with families.

San Francisco has been so resistant to development that it is now far behind Vancouver and would need 100,000 new housing units instantly to meet demand.

"Vancouver is iconic physically, but it has also been willing to strike out ahead and be a global model," Mr. Kelley said, explaining that was one of the reasons he was willing to leave San Francisco and come to Vancouver. "I wasn't sure I wanted to take this position when they first called, but I was seduced by the moment Vancouver's in."

He praised the big shift the city made in the late 1980s and early 90s as planners helped create a new model of urban living downtown.

But, he said, the city needs to have a collective conversation about where to go next – not a comprehensive rezoning and development plan, as some have suggested, but a vision for the future.

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"I think there's the potential for a strong collective will to fix the direction in Vancouver."

Mr. Kelley's hiring has generated a sense of relief inside city hall – and a lot of curiosity about what he'll do. Unlike some high-profile city planners, he is not on Twitter, so there's been speculation about his philosophy and approach. His speech was attended by about 600 people, many of them current and former planners.

Mr. Kelley, technically a foreigner under British Columbia's new property-tax system, said he isn't looking to buy a home in Vancouver right away. For the moment, he is living in a tower in north False Creek built by Concord Pacific – one of the new downtown neighbourhoods shaped by planners in the 1990s.

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