Vancouver’s Head Planner ousted by mounting pressure from developers

Vancouver’s 6-year Director of Planning has been fired by city council. In lieu of a normal transition process, the city has fired Toderian without an immediate replacement. While it is not clear why Toderian was fired, the abrupt decision came after a period of heightened tension with prominent developers, including disagreements with Holborn Group at Little Mountain and Wall Financial Corp at Shannon Mews.

At a press conference today the Mayor stated that Toderian’s dismissal was prompted by the need for “new leadership to deal with new challenges facing the city, especially around housing affordability and economic development.” Rather than focusing on Toderian’s conflicts with developers, Robertson and the city stated that a new planning director should be capable of “balancing competing demands” between affordability on the one hand and market development on the other.

City hall insiders, however, were less vague than Roberston. Bob Ransford emphasized that Toderian “had a hard time with the necessary political skills needed to keep developers on your side.” Michael Geller also acknowledged that Toderian was “unpopular with many developers.” Mike Klassen was even more direct: “Let’s be clear about why Brent is leaving the City of Vancouver now. First, the development community by in large didn’t support him.” This analysis by Vancouver’s three “in-house” right-wing commentators was echoed by a fourth, right-wing perspective.

Jeff Lee pointed to the development community’s ongoing refusal to pay normal development taxes. According to Lee, Toderian was fired because he was “responsible for enforcing a controversial ‘community amenity contribution’ (CAC) program.” Far from being controversial, the CAC program is a tax placed on private developers in exchange for community amenities like daycare, recreation centers and artist studios. While Lee would give the impression that CAC’s are onerous and dig into “the bulk of profits,” in fact CACs have little impact on the developers’ 15 – 20% minimum profit rate.

In particular, Toderian and the planning department have been butting heads with development corporations over the normal taxation on market development with respect to the land zoning process. In Vancouver, land-value is tied to the amount of development allowed on a site, which city planners term the Floor Space Ratio (FSR). When the FSR is increased, it most frequently means that the allowable building height has been increased, therefore the process is called “up zoning.” Upzoning automatically increases the value of the land commodity — this increased value is called a “land lift.” Sometimes this amounts to millions of dollars of free money if the land has been purchase prior to rezoning. But as with most things at city hall, the developer is not required to pay the full value of its commodity: on average, developers are required to pay only 75 – 80% of the upzoned value in the form of CACs, keeping the rest as super-profits over-and-above regular profits.

On the issue of upzoning, the planning department under Toderian has since 2010 clashed with the Holborn corporation over its Little Mountain housing redevelopment project. When Holborn bought Little Mountain (which land economists term “commodity A”), the land was zoned for four stories. Now Holborn would like to build taller towers and double the property’s FSR (“commodity B”). At a recent open house on January 28th, 2012, it was revealed that Holborn has to date refused to pay for the new zoning. The billionaire firm Holborn wants the new land for free.

To be clear, there is no risk that Holborn will fall short of its profit rate, for which the city has set an “allowable minimum” of 15%. This guarantee is thanks in part to the fact that Holborn was exempted from the normal requirement for all mega-projects in Vancouver to include a 20% ratio of non-market housing. Instead of the normal 20%, Holborn’s 1,600-unit project is only required to replace the social housing that existed previously on the site, demolished in the long summer of class struggle in 2009. Nevertheless, the developer is using these desperately-needed units of social housing in order to leverage the city in the negotiation process over the upzoning.

Due to the urgency of completing the promised units of social housing, the developer has played a game of “chicken” to see who can last the longest between the two parties.[i]  Meanwhile the housing crisis worsens while the displaced low-income residents of Little Mountain, evicted by Holbern using tactics of “fear and intimidation” in 2009,[ii] remain in limbo. The destruction of Little Mountain was predicated on the market, and now so will its re-construction (as Holborn CEO Joo Kim Tiah states, “completion will depend on the market”). Unlike the councillors (who themselves are funded by Holborn and who are candid about their co-dependency on the developers at election time), the city’s planners will inevitably come into some conflict with the narrow aims of the exploitative development industry.

Similarly, Toderian was found facing down developers in the lengthy Chinatown rezoning process last winter. To be sure, Toderian supported the condo plan that deliberately buried the city’s official Social Impacts study and will displace Chinese seniors and low-income renters in the North Main Street area in exchange for so-called “revitalization.” The plan faced organized opposition from hundreds of low-income Chinatown and DTES residents, joined notably by Vancouver’s former director of planning, Ray Spaxman. Nonetheless, it was well known that Toderian’s position on the rezoning was less aggressive than the developers, who at the time had been engaging in private negotiations with Vision councillors to build towers on the Chinese Cultural Centre, including a massive condo complex of 400-700 feet that would tower of the cherished Sun Yat-Sen gardens.

In the end, all of Toderian’s decisions were approved by votes of council. From the perspective of policy alone, everything carried out by Toderian was consistent with council’s planning agenda. This agenda, centered on the goal of gentrifying east Vancouver, was a carry-over from the NPA’s Downtown Eastside Revitalization Program and the EcoDensity project. Following the orders of Vision as a whole, Toderian continued the policies of the NPA, with the small addition of Vision’s STIR program.

As with the NPA, Toderian and Vision never intended for EcoDensity to ease Vancouver’s housing crisis, nor did they think it would bring affordability. In a presentation to city council by Vancouver Housing Centre Director Cameron Gray (which Director of Planner Brent Toderian termed the “definitive presentation on affordability as it relates to densification”), Gray stated: “EcoDensity is intended to improve affordability along with environmental sustainability and livability. But we need to be clear what ‘improve’ means.  It does not mean that EcoDensity will result in housing costs, either prices or rents, lower than they are now.”[iii]

If the goal is to understand the hyped politics of city planning in Vancouver,[iv] it is necessary to dispel the myth that Toderian has been fired in order to break with old planning priorities. If anything there has been a right-ward shift in the “balance” between affordability and development. With the left-leaning COPE in hibernation, Vision has put a right-wing multimillionaire developer to lead the affordability Task Force. The history here is important. After being elected in 2008, the same announcement was made of an “affordability task force” to solve the housing crisis. That task force recommended STIR: tax breaks and fee exemptions of millionaire developers to build high-end apartments. It remains to be seen what the Task Force will accomplish this time around, but nobody is crossing their fingers.


[i] All units of replacement housing were promised to be completed by 2010 at the latest — now the first phase of the project will not be completed until 2017 at the earliest.

[ii] “Open Letter to BC Housing,” Carnegie Newsletter, July 15, 2009

[iii] Brent Toderian, “The Link between Density and Affordability,” Planetizen, April 22, 2008

[iv] As Frances Bula said: “[There was] a profile of the city’s planning director, Brent Toderian, in Vancouver Magazine — in what other city would the director of planning be someone anyone would know or care about? But in Vancouver, planning matters.”