Exit Interview: Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s Ousted Planning Director

A look back at 6 years guiding one of the world’s most livable cities.

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Nate Berg

For a guy whose name has lately been splashed all over the local media after being fired from his role as planning director of the city of Vancouver, Brent Toderian is eager to talk up his city. We met to talk and tour the city about a week after the news became official that Toderian’s contract had been ended “without cause,” a high profile change in city administration that has left some urbanist-types worried about the city’s future (and some developers in a state of relief or even celebration). Toderian had been a controversial figure for the past six years, but now, as we walk through the city and see some of its hallmark projects, it’s clear that the weight of municipal government is one he’s happy to have off his shoulders.

“I was shocked but not surprised, if that makes sense,” says Toderian. “The management-style challenges have been here for a while. Many of the people who I highly respected at the Hall had already left or had been pushed out.”

Toderian’s termination has been at least partly attributed to the preferences of City Manager Penny Ballem, who has lately been exerting more power over the internal operations of City Hall. Another story line is that the city wanted a different leader to help sell its push for affordable housing and an "end" to homelessness. At the same time, much of the local press coverage around Toderian’s departure cites his own personality and working style as being contentious. One article notes that there were “problems with how the planning department has been working with various groups in the community since Toderian was hired,” and another article cites colleagues referring to him as “brash, intelligent and at times difficult to work with.”

“It’s been interesting to watch the debates about why this happened,” Toderian says. He’s been very diplomatic in recent days, and remains so, with a detectable amount of effort. And yet he’s clearly on message. That may be just because he’s endured a week of press badgering at this point, but he’s also just clearly used to extolling the urban virtues of Vancouver.

Unlike many cities where the planning director is far down a list of decreasingly known (or even known about) bureaucrats, the position has a relatively high profile in Vancouver. It was front page news when Toderian’s contract was officially terminated by the city council, as it was six years ago when he was selected to take over the planning directorship at the notably youngish age of 36. The attention paid to the planning director – and urban planning, in general – is part of Vancouver’s growing identity as one of the most livable cities in the world.

Toderian is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, as well as the founding president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism, a slightly less dogmatic and certainly more Canadian version of the CNU. He’s been a regular on the urbanism ideas circuit, traveling the globe to talk to cities about what Vancouver does and how they can do it. All this is to say that Toderian has specific ideas about how cities can and could work, and has been aggressive in implementing policies to bring about the city he has in mind in Vancouver, itself a city known for its encouragement of forward-thinking urban planning.

Since being let go from the city, he is, for the moment, masterless. He says he's been on the listening end of a number of what he calls “interesting discussions” with other cities looking to lure him into a new planning director position. He won’t say which cities he’s been in talks with, but given that both Toronto and his former city of Calgary are currently looking for new planning directors, it isn't hard to guess that at least those two were intrigued to hear that Toderian’s services are suddenly available.

“I’d come from Calgary, where one of my roles there was to build a planning culture, not a developer culture,” Toderian says. “So I had people unhappy, developers unhappy with me in Calgary, and I found by the time I arrived [here], there were certain developers in Vancouver already saying nasty things.”

The narrative of an anti-developer planning director coming into town, coupled with the fact that Toderian was replacing two well-liked and well-established co-directors, Larry Beasley and Dr. Ann McAfee, made Toderian’s new job in the city in 2006 a challenge from before the start.

"The truth often can’t keep up with the narrative," says Toderian. "That was a struggle for me."

Inside the public courtyard of the Woodward’s project on Vancouver’s downtown east side is a large piece of art. It’s a 30' by 50' photographic recreation of the riots this neighborhood saw in 1971, by artist Stan Douglas. It was a sort of classic hippies-and-cops affair, with the police violently breaking up a marijuana “smoke-in,” leading to the notoriously un-mellow riots. It was an inauspicious moment for the city and especially for this neighborhood, which has historically been one of the poorest in all of Canada. A new sort of human rights battle is now underway on the downtown east side, where needle exchanges and drug addicts and the country’s poorest intermingle – and where developers see a chance for a cleaner, safer, and ultimately richer neighborhood.

The Woodward’s project is both part of that vision and an argument against it. The site is the former home of the city’s historic Woodward’s Department Store, a neighborhood staple for decades and then a highly visible sign of the east side’s decline after the company’s bankruptcy and the building’s abandonment in the early 1990s. The city saw the building as a key part of redeveloping the east side, but was wary about pricing out the neighborhood’s poorest and most vulnerable. The process started when the city bought the building in 2003, and eventually enabled the redevelopment of the site, including 43- and 32-story residential towers, a grocery store and drug store, office space, university space and a mix of 500 market-rate housing units and 200 social housing units when it opened in 2010.

It’s an interesting place for Toderian to start our tour this bright Sunday. This is not a project that Toderian played a major role in crafting, but he was around for its final years of development, and he regards it as one of the signature projects guiding the way for future development in the city. Toderian’s main impact at Woodward’s is actually in the neighborhood around it. Developers had wanted to replicate the success of the project and were proposing similarly tall residential towers to spike up this area of relatively low building heights. But Toderian argued that flooding the area with high-rises would drain it of its existing population, a classic example of gentrification.

“Although they may not be physically displaced, they’re quite correct to be concerned about being economically displaced if high end stores start to replace the kind of stores and services they need,” Toderian says. “It’s the greatest tension in this community.”

Preventing this type of development in this part of town, he says, is and will be a strong guiding point for the city’s future development and how what the city approves can affect or protect the populations it has and the ones it wants to grow.

The city is growing and changing. New transit built in time for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, and increasingly varied types of housing projects coming up on main and secondary corridors throughout its dense downtown and less dense but much bigger outer region are shifting the city’s population.

“The transformation in even the six years I’ve been here has been remarkable,” says Toderian.

And if there’s one word that embodies the transformation underway – and the contentious nature of the city’s changes – that word is density.

Density has often been the gateway condition to bringing about livable cities among urbanists and smart growth-types, Toderian included. It’s also led to numerous debates and bouts of NIMBYism in cities across North America, with worries about cramming cities full of people and using land use regulations to strip existing residents of their right to live with the space they prefer. Increasing density, however, rarely means bulldozing a city from border to border and throwing up hundreds of towers. In Vancouver, the shift toward a more dense city has been more focused on certain areas.

Policy-wise, some credit is due to EcoDensity – a trademarked term created by previous Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan that Toderian helped shape into a set of city policies aimed at making it easier and legal to build more housing in the city. Sullivan launched the idea in 2006, shortly before Toderian took over the planning director position.

“It was a great brand name but nobody knew what it meant. And the fear was that it would mean density everywhere and not particularly diverse forms of density,” Toderian says.

Critics were vocal as the idea took shape, but Toderian was able to craft the policy into something politically palatable that would also benefit the city’s built environment in terms of sustainability and affordability. It was approved in 2008, and has since been augmented and refined.

“People assumed the worst, and I came into that context with the challenge to define it and to implement it,” Toderian says.

Defining and implementing are key elements of the planning department in any city. In Vancouver, before Toderian took the reins, those two sides of the jobs were largely split between the two former co-directors of planning, Beasley and McAfee. Beasley mainly focused his energy downtown, working with developers to build more community amenities and ground-level placemaking in exchange for taller buildings, while McAfee focused more on a citywide agenda.

“He could focus on the developers, and she could focus on the vision and the policy. The developers immediately noticed that I wasn’t as available,” says Toderian. “I was replacing two people and immediately went through some challenging budget situations and cutbacks.”

Toderian says he wasn’t able to work as closely with each developer to hammer out the kinds of deals Beasley did, and the development community did not respond favorably.

“That was seen as ‘Brent doesn’t do what Larry did.’ And the truth is that I strategically delegated, which I had to to survive the workload,” Toderian says.

“It’s tough to follow Larry,” Toderian says.

When he first took the job he was told it would probably take at least five years to get the hang of it, and he thinks that’s about accurate. Being let go after six, though, means that just when he was coming into his own, the political tides changed. He worries that won’t bode well for whoever replaces him.

“If that five years thing is true, then you’ve got to let the person have the chance to start off on the right foot,” says Toderian. “I have nothing but respect for Larry, but I hope the comparisons to Larry stop with me and don’t dog my successor.”

No replacement has yet been chosen, but the Robertson administration is reportedly planning an international search.

“I predict the person will have a fair number of gray hairs,” he says. “I have many more gray hairs now than I did six years ago.”

That could be a sign of coming into a tough situation and implementing the plans of others, but it could also be telling of Toderian’s dedication to improving the city by making parts of it more dense, and all of it more livable.

“’Density done well’ has become part of the normal language here,” Toderian says. “Ultimately, if we overbuild sites because we feel the pressure to try to solve all the city’s problems with one building project, you’re going to turn people against density. And we’ve been able to show projects can be accessible and actually make the city better over generations.”

One example is the Athletes Village project, built for the Olympics and now a steadily populating mixed-use neighborhood just over the water from downtown and right next to a subway stop on the newly built Canada Line. The project has 1,110 housing units, 250 of them social, and a mix of retail and public spaces. With project-wide passive design and renewable energy integrated throughout, it’s been highly regarded in the green building community and hailed as the “greenest neighborhood in the world.”

As we walk through its housing blocks and tour its public spaces, Toderian says that “greenest in the world” may be going a bit far, but he argues it is one of the finest new projects built in North America. And he made sure to use it as a model the city would follow. The passive design requirements of the project have been added into the city’s bylaws, requiring new developments to have similarly energy efficient designs.

Another main element of Toderian’s work in recent years has been to champion more mid-rise development in the city, much like the buildings in the Athletes Village, with their heights typically in the 4-10 story range.

“We’ve got a large city, and high-rises are going to be wrong for most of the city. But we’ve still got many places for high rises,” Toderian says. “We’ve always embraced every form. I don’t buy into the debate of high rises being bad and mid rises being good.”

He’s also pursuing density at a much lower scale: in the back yards and alleys of what most cities would call their single-family neighborhoods. He’s helped implement a policy of allowing secondary suites and in 2009 ushered in a new policy allowing laneway housing on these low-density lots, a move that has helped increase housing access and affordability in the city. Its 500th laneway house was recently approved.

“My perspective is if you haven’t at least done secondary suites in single family houses, you’re not really serious yet about affordability and sustainability,” Toderian says. “In North America it’s an urban no-brainer.”

And in the coming years, along with these changes in density, the city can be expected to show some aesthetic changes as well. The city has long been criticized for having too much of the same glass tower architecture style, and Toderian had been focusing on bringing more diversity to the city’s buildings. One notable pending project recently leaked is a 49-story tower by the hot Bjarke Ingels Group architects.

“We’ve got some architecture that I’ve approved or negotiated that won’t be built for the next few years that will change the perception of Vancouver architecture,” Toderian says.

Looking over the water from the Athletes Village to downtown, a little architectural diversity seems like a welcome change.

But for all that Toderian has kept and put in motion, it will be up to someone else to keep things progressing. He says the staff he worked with in the planning department is well prepared for that task, calling them the best planners in North America. The feeling is seemingly mutual. As one commenter noted on the blog of Vancouver reporter Frances Bula, Toderian’s final address to his staff resulted in a 5-minute standing ovation. (Bula’s excellent 2009 profile of Toderian in Vancouver Magazine further explores his sometimes contentious tenure in the city’s government.)

“In a strange way it’s been one of the best weeks of my career. And that moment with my staff was probably the best moment of my career. It’s been an emotional week,” says Toderian. “As you could imagine, it was very hard because the announcement was made in the papers. And the one thing I wanted was to be able to tell my staff.”

And though his interactions with his own staff have been good, Toderian says the situation within the administration had become more difficult in recent years.

“There’s been a new management style that has either driven away or meant the loss of many of the best creative people at the Hall. It’s more of a centralized control,” Toderian says. “A planning director, though, has to be able to speak truth to power. A planning director has to always make their recommendations on the decisions based on integrity, professionalism and principle, and being able to say what needs to be said is a very important part of that.”

The first decade of Toderian’s career was in consulting. He says he planned to just give municipal work a try to understand the other side. A couple of years at the most, he thought. That was 12 years ago.

But now may be when Toderian gets out of the municipal game for good.

“I didn’t expect to be doing it this year, as you can imagine. When you get a director job at 36 you don’t imagine you’re going to retire at that position. I had always anticipated that this would likely be my last municipal job and then I would go back to the private sector,” Toderian says. “But as my wife and my mother remind me: take your time and make sure you think through all the options. Which is what a planner should do.”

Another part of what makes Toderian’s move to another city unlikely is his unabashed love for Vancouver. As we walk and train around the city and he highlights the possibilities and challenges, its clear that he’s still very passionate about the city’s future, and that he hopes he’ll be able to continue to guide the city in whatever role he next takes.

He’s specifically hoping to help continue the trends he helped start and contribute to, including the continued migration of families into downtown (about 7,000 in the last 20 years), the preservation of the city’s industrial lands, and the growth of jobs both downtown and beyond.

Toderian’s an admitted workaholic, and even though he now has more time on his hands, it’s not passing by idly. You can almost see the gears turning to figure out when and how best he’ll reemerge to do what he loves.

“I wake up every morning so far feeling nervous,” Toderian says. “And I’ve always heard from creative people if you’re not waking up in the morning feeling a little bit nervous, you’re probably not living on the creative edge.”

Photo credits: Nate Berg; portrait courtesy Brent Toderian

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.