Frances Bula

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Part 4: Presentation by Frances Bula
Urban affairs journalist,  Vancouver
Edited for clarity. For complete remarks, please refer to the video.

I will remind everyone that probably the one who is going to have one of the biggest says in choosing the new planner is very likely the City manager who will be chosen first, and we don’t know who that is.

I have seen first-hand a lot of what Peter and Marguerite have said.

Here is a little story that they didn’t tell that I get over and over again with every planner I’ve ever reported on. And we have lots of off-the-record talks. A huge part of their job that a lot of people don’t realize, which has become apparent in some of the criticisms the last few years, is saying ‘no’ to developers who say, “I think I will buy this industrial land – any chance of rezoning it?” I’ve had them practically weeping on the phone to me saying, “I feel I can’t get anything done.“

If the City appears to wobble in any way on some of those issues, it just creates massive land speculation. And it will always be something different. For a couple years there was a run on hotels. Half the hotel owners in the city were phoning saying, “How about if we convert it to condos?” And another year it’ll be industrial land. Like with any capitalist system, they are looking at where they can buy cheap, sell high, and make a profit. So developers are always looking at all of the possibilities in the city and then phoning up the planning department to say, “What if we did this?”

I hear people criticize the planner or Council saying, “You approve everything that comes through, you are just patsies.” They don’t realize that what comes to Council is what has already made it through quite a testing process in the planning department.

There are four different masters that the head planner has to serve.

One master is the public, and there is not a unified public. There is a certain part of the public that says, “If I don’t get my own way on every issue, then you are a terrible undemocratic person.” And then there is a different public that says, “Tell us what the rules of engagement are; tell us what you are going to do with our input so that we know the limits of what we are able to do, or how we are able to modify things.”

And as Peter said, there is a public that doesn’t come out to meetings, and doesn’t scream and yell, and doesn’t wait around for three nights to present their opinions at public hearings. It’s very difficult to know what their true opinions are, and I know that the planning department has struggled with how to find out. They used to do surveys in the neighbourhoods, and that got hijacked by very energetic resident groups that would make sure that their group got in the maximum number of surveys. So the survey results became unrepresentative.

Another master is Council, who want the head planner to achieve their objectives, sometimes with an extremely aggressive agenda, but who also don’t want the planners to get Council in trouble. So the planners are supposed to push forward a really aggressive agenda but somehow appease all the community groups that don’t like it and make sure that Council never looks bad or comes across as not listening.

Then you have the developers, and they aren’t a unified group, either. I’ve been talking to people about coming here to speak about this issue and hear different things. One group really wants a planner who will bring a sense of design back to the city. There has been a tremendous focus in the last few years on accommodating density, trying to achieve rental, and all kinds of things, and there is a sense that design has completely gone by the boards.

There is another group of developers that just wants certainty on the money and the pro-formas. They say, “If you are going to make us pay CACs, that’s fine, but can we not have the 18-month negotiation back and forth where I have no idea what I’m going to pay? And where I can’t go on the basis of any previous deals because this one might be totally different?” And the smaller developers feel like they get totally ignored in the City because so much attention is paid to the big mega-developments that deliver huge CAC dollars.

And, finally there is another ‘master’ that we don’t think about – the people inside City Hall, like the people who work in the planning department and other departments. If you have a head planner who doesn’t inspire confidence and agreement inside City Hall, they can’t take things very far, and you get a certain amount of disarray that clogs up the works. I’ve certainly heard about that over the years. Oddly, I’ve never seen a planner who can do it all. There are some planners whose staff love them and the public hates them, or vice versa.

To finish up, I think there are some big issues that a new planner will have to address

One big issue is, do we really need a new comprehensive plan or do we just need someone who can articulate in a coherent way, over and over again, what’s going on? Because sometimes there are well-articulated plans and objectives, but the public doesn’t know about them, so they are surprised. For example: “How can you build townhouses in the back of a heritage building? This is a violation of the neighborhood plan.” And it’s actually not. It’s something that was written in a long time ago as a different plan to try to preserve heritage.

Another of the challenges will be trying to figure out how you can communicate authentically with the public in a way where one group doesn’t get to see itself as the one that should be listened to. There needs to be some new way, some innovative ways of talking to people, trying to solicit the opinions of those who don’t come out to meetings.

And finally, this person has to be a saint and also achieve world peace. [laughter]

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