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Vancouver planning chief Toderian given the axe

Brent Toderian, City of Vancouver planning department chief, stands outside the BC Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver January 10, 2007.

Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

The Vision city council is terminating the contract of former mayor Sam Sullivan's most high-profile hire, planning director Brent Toderian.

According to sources, Mr. Toderian was told last week that his contract is being ended "without cause."

Council is supposed to vote formally on the decision at a private meeting on Tuesday, but the news leaked out of city hall late last week and has been making the rounds among developers and architects who do a lot of work in Vancouver.

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The termination comes after an almost six-year tenure by Mr. Toderian, where he provoked a steady stream of complaints from key local developers and architects.

Mr. Toderian had always said, in response, that "good planning is not a popularity contest."

Mr. Toderian was the youngest city planning director in Canada when Mr. Sullivan appointed him at the age of 36 to head up a planning department that is watched by urbanists around the world.

The move comes as something of a surprise because there was no recent project where he had noticeably butted heads with either council or a developer.

But for years, development-community members unhappy with him had been saying he didn't give clear messages about the planning department's direction, with the result that projects floundered and stalled as people tried to figure out what he and the department really wanted.

Others blamed his leadership for the steady rise of neighbourhood anti-development groups, while another group of critics was concerned about what they said was a lack of overall vision for the city.

But others in the city welcomed his style, saying Mr. Toderian treated developers equally, rather than favouring a few, that he demonstrated constantly that urban design was a priority, and that he delegated more authority to his staff instead of making all the decisions himself.

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During his time, Mr. Toderian steered through the EcoDensity policy – Mr. Sullivan's idea about increasing density as a way of making the city more environmentally sustainable – laneway housing, and a plan to transform the single-family housing along Cambie Street and the Canada Line into a row of apartments and office towers.

Former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price, who was surprised to hear the news, said this is a key turning point for the Vision council because it's about to launch a push for affordable housing.

"That means significant change to the fabric of the city, which no one has been willing to take on before," he said. Whoever is the city planning director will be in charge of that.

Mr. Price said it will be important for Vision politicians to make it clear that Mr. Toderian's departure is not because of pressure from the development community.

"If Vision wants to start on the wrong foot on this, it could do it by getting it in the public mind that this is a developers' council."

Mr. Toderian, whose salary was $201,343 in 2010, will likely be eligible for at least a year's severance.

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Mr. Toderian, originally from Ontario and later a planner in Calgary, followed in the footsteps of three strong planning directors: Ray Spaxman, Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee, who established Vancouver's reputation as an urban lab for successful experiments in downtown living and strong neighbourhoods.

But he faced a lot of new challenges in their wake. He replaced two people, Mr. Beasley and Ms. McAfee, who had been co-directors since 1994.

His effort to turn Mr. Sullivan's concept of EcoDensity into reality prompted a wave of neighbourhood resistance.

Then the Vision council was elected with a plan to create affordable rental units in the city by giving developers density and parking bonuses. That plan sparked even more opposition around the city.

At the same time, senior planners left the city in droves under the last two political administrations, either because they were ready to retire or because they weren't comfortable with new political regimes, leaving Mr. Toderian with a less-experienced department.

Vancouver has been a tough town for planning directors.

Gerald Sutton Brown, the city's first planning director, was fired in 1973 after 20 years when a new political party under Art Phillips swept into power.

Mr. Phillips's TEAM party hired Mr. Spaxman, who quit in 1988 when he got into conflict with then-mayor Gordon Campbell.

The next planning director, Tom Fletcher, quietly moved on after five years amid murmurs that the Delta resident wasn't a good fit for the rapidly growing city.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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