Director of Planning? Whatever.

Vancouver's post of ‘Director of Planning’ has become 'merely a facade', argues architect/planner Robert Chester

On January 31 of this year, City of Vancouver announced the dismissal of its Director of Planning, but it did not announce a Council-appointed successor. The ‘Director of Planning’ is a statutory position, or post, under the Vancouver Charter — legislation that establishes the City of Vancouver. Weeks after, on February 29, 2012 Council, in-camera, appointed Kent Munro, Assistant Director, to the position of Director of Planning on an interim basis, but by then the post had stood vacant for a considerable period of time. While the legal authority for administrating the Zoning Bylaw and issuing development permits rests solely in the Director of Planning post, during the weeks in question, the work of issuing development permits under the Zoning Bylaw somehow continued on as a managerial process carried out by the City’s corporate staff, regardless of authority.

It is a wonder that council would have gone ahead and decided to dismiss the Director of Planning without appointing a replacement to facilitate legitimate operation of the Zoning Bylaw. Questions about the legal implications for development permits issued in the absence of an appointed Director of Planning will inevitably arise now, although they will surely get sorted out in the end. The bigger concern however is what this omission reveals about our civic government.

It appears that city staff, in the absence of an appointed Director of Planning, just went ahead anyway and assumed the task of administrating the Zoning Bylaw as if the post of Director of Planning were redundant. Some might go further and suggest that for years Community Services staff have by their own volition been acting in place of the Director of Planning. They have therein constructed a de-facto ‘Director-of-Planning-functional-authority’ amongst staff for the purposes of administrating the Zoning Bylaw. That such a constructed ‘authority’ had already existed would explain why everything continued on, business as usual, after the Director of Planning post suddenly became vacant.

Clearly, council and the City Manager mistakenly believe that the authority of the Director of Planning can be claimed by, and distributed amongst staff bureaucrats, even though there is no mechanism for this in the bylaws.

Time to reform the role of DoP?

Admittedly, the volume of development permits processed annually is far too big of a task for one person to review them all. For this reason Directors of Planning (when there is one) typically assign the work of reviewing applications to their own nominees, and it is the Director of Planning’s authority to do so. However when this occurs it is critical that the Director of Planning sets out the principles being applied to all decisions, and monitors the processes in order to retain sole authority and maintain personal responsibility. 

It’s not entirely surprising that a Director of Planning could stand by and let others take over authority, when one realizes that this position has a multitude of other responsibilities in addition to the duty to administrate development permits – which is probably the least sexy of all of them.

Over the years, the Zoning Bylaw has become increasingly complex and arguably beyond reasonable comprehension by anyone, including city council, the City Manager and possibly even the previous Director of Planning. The Zoning Bylaw has become largely obscure and now represents an administrative make-work scheme within the bureaucracy, which elevates the status of administrative managers, serves the bureaucrats, and leaves city council in the dark. This does not serve the community.

For sustainability, resources must be focussed on serving the community and not on serving government.

A responsible and fair government is the most efficient and effective government, and promotes a moral society that may then flourish. Alarmingly, there appears to be no one taking ultimate responsibility for administrating the Zoning Bylaw. A danger exists that when misuse of authority is tolerated in an organization, it has a tendency to become rife throughout.

Reinstate the powers of the DoP

It is now incumbent upon City of Vancouver Council to instate a permanent Director of Planning, with the full autonomous authority that’s necessary to validate integrity of the post.

One might wonder whether our current elected representatives have the capacity to understand the principles underlying the authority and responsibility of the statutory post of Director of Planning. We must also ask whether our city will in the future ever be graced by a Director of Planning who will take on the responsibility of commanding the vested authority. The next Director of Planning would do well to recognize it as a power that can be wielded to hold on to continued employment.

– post by Robert Chester

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  • Thought of The Day

    “It doesn’t matter. It’s all about… luck!”

    100% of the development applications in Vancouver are in reality an exercise in futility; usually the end result has nothing to do with the idea that started it all. It’s more like luck, and by luck I mean… you sent the right sized cheque to Vision & Mayor.

    Let me explain.

    Architects, Engineers, Planners, Developers prepare sound preliminary or complete development applications.
    After months of back an forth with Planning & Development city staff, the PDA/ CDA reaches the UDP (UrbanDesignPanel).

    Engineers, Architects, Planners, Developers, Local Artist on the UDP, are voting Yay or Nay on many things (form of development, architectural expression, density, height, use, heritage density transfers, materials, LEED design features, view corridors, etc…)
    Public input is welcomed.
    A Yay vote sends the DA to the DPB (Development Permit Board). A Nay vote sends the Applicant back to the drawing board.

    Once at DPB, another plethora of advisers (general public, design profession, UDP, development ind., heritage rep…) are giving advice to the a Three members board… and here’s the thing, only the three member’s votes count!
    Which IMHO is the first flaw in the process.
    Thinking now, that the oldest member… Brent got fired, the Board is left with a newbee and a nobody, both of which could play ping-pong with each other, but never could finish a game.
    The fact that a DP Application may pass with a vote of 2 to 1 is stupid, and totally wrong on so many levels.
    Public input is welcomed.
    All that good, solid professional & public advice could prove to be good for nothing in the end, as the Aufochs aka Ballem of the day could vote whichever way their ego is pointing.
    And in all fairness Toderian was doing his own ballet steps in there as well.
    Yay or Nay.
    If it’s a Yay, the CDA goes to Council. Where it dies, or survives with trauma, or it goes through a sex change operation.
    If it’s a Nay… well, in the past decade I do notr a single Nay in there, but I may be wrong.

    And here’s the kicker.
    After months of work, city staff involvement, panels of professionals, higher echelon cronies showing off their cufflinks… the application is viewed by Cllors. Deal, Reimer, Louie, Jang… all solid urban thinkers, champion in-camera tweeters, advocates for green paper slippers inside the Chambers… oh, and last but not least, the person in charge of the microphones… The Gregor!
    Terrifying, I am telling you!
    Public input is welcomed… Ho, Hey!

    So Ladies and Gents, it comes to this:
    (everybody please #Rize as I you’re reading this)

    If Cllor. Meggs is low on sugar, you are screwed.
    If Cllor. Reimer is having a bad hair day, you are screwed.
    If Mayor Gregor can’t find his spectacles, you’re screwed.
    If Cllor Deal misses her brunch, you-are-screwed.
    So you see, it goes all back to… luck.

    A city, who’s major decisions are made by a group of misfits, needs to be call itself the Parody City.
    And that’s why the City feels they don’t need a new Director! 🙂

    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

    • Terry M

      Glissy, you were not supposed to compete with the post itself! Brilliant, as always. Thanks for the inner knowledge on how things work at the city. “if color misses her brunch, you-are-screwed” Rotflmao!

      • Terry M

        Oops that was supposed to be Cllor Deal misses her brunch…

      • Terry,
        Not competing with Robert’s post.
        On the contrary.
        Adding. I think.
        As a matter of fact I found his post to be excellent.
        And very revealing.
        Well done!

  • Gentleman Jack

    “an administrative make-work scheme”

    I am pretty sure that is what Cities are in general, other than the necessary infrastructure like water, sewage, etc. Leave zoning/use up to the common law.

    • Steven Forth

      Interesting idea. It would certainly generate a lot of work for lawyers. This is how it works in most Asian cities by the way. Under common law you can expect to see a lot more density and a lot more design diversity.

  • In the olden days before the Development Permit Board and even before TEAM, the City was run by a committee of all the department heads. This was known as the “Joint Technical Committee.” It reviewed all major developments. Recognizing that it is impossible to stand in any one spot without violating at least 7 bylaws, it tried to resolve things at the earliest stage. It could do this because its members had written every bylaw of every kind. It became known affectionately as the “Technical Joint Committee.” It followed developments along from the start. The administrative tail wagged the developer dog.

    The Chairman was the City Manager. Actually, there were two city managers one being an engineer (Lorne Ryan) and the other a planner (Gerald Sutton Brown). The pair were called the Board of Administration. They were the very model of a modern British Bureaucracy.

    When Mayor Phillips was elected he promptly fired Sutton Brown. I tried to memorialize the event at Phillips’ retirement party, with a poem that included the following stanzas:

    “Remember the Day you deposed Sutton-Brown
    The word spread like measles all over the town,
    You were quite ruthless to make him step down!
    How could you do this to a helpless old toothless?

    As it turned out his career didn’t spoil
    He was hired to plan towns for Mobile Oil.
    He travels to places wherever its sunny.
    The way it turned out – it was funny.

    You never can tell, you never can tell
    What wonderful fortunes can spring from the well
    Of natural disasters that turn out quite swell
    Till the end, you never can tell.”
    The City survived the loss of the Joint Technical Committee and its replacement by more pleasant people and concerned citizens. It will also survive without a Director of Planning.

    My modest suggestion for change is that we move towards a “conscriptatory” democracy whereby the entire council is conscripted from a voters list like a jury and compelled to serve for two terms with the same pay they were making before their appointment.

    This would weed out undesirables i.e. people who want the job.

    • Thought of The Night

      “Just got an idea for a short Roundel.”

      Thanks Jonathan… I’ll call it:


      Demented City,
      Expelled Brent,
      Fronted by Twitty,
      Council from Trent.

      Bang Chitty,
      Zero Content,
      Demented City,
      Expelled Brent.

      Sitting whitty,
      Almost bent,
      Avenging Brent.

      Drum, water, cement…

      We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

      • Dennis O’Bell

        LMAO, Bravo! I love it

      • Glissando,

        Very Nice. Now do one for Brent based on “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”


      • Mira

        Aaaaaah, Glissy, you’re the Words Master!
        I wonder if Mr. Toderian came across this…
        Not too many have been immortalized in verse… by you!
        Clever! 🙂

      • West End Gal

        Very nice Glissando, but I don’t think former th DOP was meritorious enough to get his own poem. A top level bureaucrat. Period. Boring. Are we getting soft, or is politics fever, Glissando? 🙂

  • InsiderDoug

    The Director of Planning, and the Planning Department, are very important to the city’s future, and this admin can’t be allowed to weaken or dismantle them. People need to speak up before its too late.

    By far the best written on the situation over the last few months was from Gordon Price in Business in Vancouver, “Push and Pull”… even more amazing is the list of the city’s top urbanists who rallied in the comment section of price’s blog … everyones been referring to them as the “who’s who” of city planning … speaking up for brent, and planning in general in the city. Read all the comments, will blow your mind.

  • Southvancouver

    Why do we need a planning department at all? The concept of a having a plan is just something that gets in the way, like zoning, public input and of course those pesky nimby’s. Why don’t just get a chimpanzee with a CD-1 stamp? Really why even pretend that there’s something resembling urban planning going on in this city any more?