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On the Record with Vancouver’s new chief planner, Gil Kelley

Vancouver’s new chief planner, Gil Kelley , has been on the job for just over two weeks. The Courier caught up with him to talk about his approach to his new role. Most recently, Kelley was director of citywide planning for the City of San Francisco.
gil kelley
Gil Kelley, the city's new chief planner, started work Sept. 15. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Vancouver’s new chief planner, Gil Kelley, has been on the job for just over two weeks. The Courier caught up with him to talk about his approach to his new role. Most recently, Kelley was director of citywide planning for the City of San Francisco. He also spent 10 years as the director of planning for the City of Portland, while his first director of planning position was with the City of Berkeley in California.

How familiar were you with Vancouver before you took the job?

I’m certainly getting more familiar now, in the last two weeks, than I have been before. I’ve visited many times over the years, but I’ve never spent an extended period here. I’ve watched Vancouver grow and change over the years, but I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with it.

Did you have a sense of the challenges it faces?

I did, through both the interview process and the fact Vancouver shares a lot in common with the other West Coast, Northwest Coast [cities] — from San Francisco to Portland to Seattle to here. So, I have a sense of the larger challenges, but I need to study up and talk to a lot of people and get intimately familiar with specifics here.

Why did you want the job in Vancouver?

Honestly, I think Vancouver is at a particular moment of inflection as it were. It’s poised to make some big moves, much as it did in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when it really took hold of the downtown core and reversed the paradigm of the flight to the suburbs and said, ‘No, downtown and urban vitality is a very desirable attribute.’ That was the aspiration then and there are probably a new set of aspirations and challenges now, which I’ll reserve going too deeply into until I get more familiar. But what I’m trying to say is, there were some big moves done and some big planning and there’s an opportunity to recapture some of that spirit right now. I think it’s facing many of the challenges that San Francisco is now facing, maybe just a little bit further back from the tidal wave, but I think its readiness to address those may actually be greater than San Francisco right now. So that combination of things was very, very attractive to me.

This [Sept. 28] is your 10th day on the job. What’s been your focus in these early days?

It’s been a diving into the deep end of the pool in terms of attending a lot of different meetings, with different city people primarily, not so much with external folks, with community people or even developers, which is to come. I’ve been trying to understand the city structure here and what the projects are — getting to know my key staff managers, my fellow general managers in the other departments, the city manager, the mayor and council. So, just trying to get the lay of the land.

Have you sought advice from anyone in particular? Previous planners? Former head planner Brian Jackson?

I haven’t talked to Brian nor to Brent [Toderian]. I did have a conversation with Larry Beasley, which I found interesting. I actually know him from back in the days when he was a planning director here and I was in Portland. We exchanged some visits back and forth at that point, so it was good to touch base with him. But I will want to connect with a lot of the former planners, as well as the current folks on staff — get to know people more closely in their projects and their work. To get to know those other perspectives you were alluding to.

Best advice either from Larry Beasley or anyone else?

I would generalize it by saying what I think I’ve heard from the council, the city manager Sadhu [Johnston] and from Larry [Beasley] — and frankly from other department heads, the other GMs. That’s own the role. Just own it. Let’s go big and really do it. And that’s so refreshing and challenging to me. That’s why I came frankly.

City manager Sadhu Johnston said the person who got your position would need to be a community builder, a visionary communicator, someone with experience dealing in conflict and who works well with the mayor and council. How have you shown those traits in previous jobs?

I actually think the city planner’s role or the chief planner’s role — whatever jurisdiction you’re in they call it slightly different things — it’s kind of a twin role. [It's] to provoke possibilities, but at the same time really be a convener where you’re not only welcoming but excavating other opinions and mining those for what’s behind them, what’s underneath them and what the real possibilities are. I’ve actually played that convening role, both with the community and with agency folks, repeatedly through my career to the extent that past city managers or mayors have tapped me to convene department heads on an ongoing or standing basis to coordinate or resolve issues. I’ve certainly done that with a variety of different perspectives and interest groups within the public on any given number of challenges. That’s an essential part of the role. The staff here are really good. And I don’t need to be the technical expert that I was early on in my career. At this point I’m the convener, the facilitator or the provocateur in a way. The questioner.

You’ll be the subject of a lot of criticism if the past proves true — from resident groups and potentially from former planners. What will your approach to consultation be?

My impulse is to reach out and listen first, so I’m not coming at them with something I expect them to accept or to do, but to really make the first round of conversations. To just hear from them and hear their perspectives, whether that’s within a public setting or with people who have longstanding civic interest in outcomes here. That’s my approach and it’s not just passive listening, but to really ask why and understand where they’re coming from.

How do you think your experience in San Francisco and Portland will inform how you approach issues in Vancouver?

What [Portland and Vancouver] share in common is a very longstanding civic tradition around city building and in a very overt, intentional way. So I think [it will be] drawing on my experience in Portland about that and tapping people’s energy. Much like here, I think urban planning is a substitute for major league sports. So that feels good to me, to be able to bring that tradition here. In terms of San Francisco, which is a more recent experience for me, I think [it's] the currency of the issues around the divergence of pay scale with the emerging economic sectors and what that is doing to housing markets, as well as foreign investment and [how] the highly attractive nature of the urban core to people has really, really accentuated the housing crisis. We’re beginning to see the ripples of that here. The beginnings of it. So I think bringing that experience with those issues in all the dimensions in terms of how in plays out, in terms of neighbourhood gentrification and displacement and so forth and so on — that’s going to be a valuable piece to bring in terms of sensitivity.

Obviously affordability is one of the key issues facing Vancouver whether you want to rent or buy. How will you approach it? Some people criticize the city for protecting single-family neighbourhoods too much to the detriment of people who want to move into the city, while other long-time residents feel their neighbourhoods are being destroyed and don’t look like they used to. How do you bridge that gap or deal with that issue?

I guess I would say it’s not an either or choice and I would resist that framing of it. There is room for gentle infill and change within lower density neighbourhoods, but it doesn’t mean radical change. We’ve got a lot of capacity yet to be tapped in the corridors and station areas and even in the core city, so I want to resist that kind of framing. That said, there’s probably a generational shift coming where some of those single-family homes will be re-occupied by families, instead of older adults, where there might be a desire to add a laneway, cottage or accessory unit to help with the mortgage. That kind of gentle infill, those numbers actually add up over a broad landscape, so I’m not certain yet that we need to go in and wholly upzone single-family neighbourhoods. Maybe widening the corridors a little bit is one thing, but I need to look more closely and get a little bit smarter about the lay of the land here before I can answer your question definitively.

Another big issue here is heritage and people feeling there’s been a lot of loss of heritage. There’s a desire to protect heritage. Do you have thoughts on how you’ll deal with that file?

It’s a little early because I want to study the regulatory construct here, as well as really get out and tour the neighbourhoods and see things up close before I really answer that question. I want to say I value heritage. That doesn’t mean in every neighbourhood every house has to look the same... But in terms of overall protecting character, and certainly preserving landmark structures, I’m very sympathetic to that.

How much influence did politicians in Portland and San Francisco have on their respective planning departments?

I needed to be acquainted with and have a good rapport with all decision makers. Yeah, they were involved, but in none of those situations were they highly micro-managers. That didn’t stop them necessarily from passing bylaws at will, but there was a consultation around that in general terms. I’m hoping to continue that here so Sadhu and myself are actually having early conversations with decision makers about their ideas about issues, so that we can form those new initiatives together. That’s the main thing. I have to say, I’ve been fortunate not to be constantly second guessed. Part of that is just building trust in my position on the part of decision makers.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.