British Columbia·Metro Matters

Why Vancouver's chief planner stepped down and what his legacy will be still unknown

Kelley wouldn't speak about the specifics of his departure, but all indications are that it was sudden, based on general dissatisfaction rather than any specific situation. 

Gil Kelley leaves believing that an increase in rental housing and the work on a citywide plan will pay off

Vancouver’s former chief city planner Gil Kelley said city council had the right to choose a new direction. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Nobody at Vancouver City Hall will explain exactly why Gil Kelley is no longer chief planner.

But if you read between the lines, it's fairly clear it wasn't exactly his choice. 

"I think it's an important moment right now to allow the council a choice to make choices around leadership," he said, a day after his departure was tersely announced by the city. 

"It's a juncture. There's obviously things that are really important things in motion in my view, that I'd love to stick around for, but that's an opportunity for me to just step aside."

Kelley wouldn't speak about the specifics of his departure, but all indications are that it was sudden, based on general dissatisfaction rather than any specific situation. 

It means Kelley leaves with a lot of his work — and with it, attempts to make Vancouver more affordable — still to be determined. 

The right supply?

Head planners in Vancouver traditionally have a high-profile role, linked with the city's well-known views and urban philosophies, and Kelley was no exception: in council meetings he was usually the one presenting on the big picture developments and could often be seen in panels and presentations advocating for the city's future. 

When he came to Vancouver in 2016 after a career as a head planner in San Francisco, Portland and Berkley, he argued that Vancouver was pursuing too many one-bedroom market condos, and not enough housing for the rest of the population. 

As he leaves, he believes the city is on its way to reversing that trend, with a significant increase in new approved rental buildings coming after the passing of a 10-year housing strategy in 2017. 

"It's an enormous shift away from the proportions we were getting, and those trends will continue," he said, while also highlighting the city's work in creating new plans for Northeast False Creek, Chinatown, the False Creek Flats and other areas. 

"You don't turn the ship overnight … but really, the appetite and the need for rental to keep diverse populations in Vancouver, and to accommodate new technology workers coming in, this is just a critical housing supply."

Numerous skyscrapers pictured in downtown Vancouver.
While the rental market in Vancouver has improved in the last year, the price of detached homes and apartments has quickly gone up. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Good words, not execution?

Kelley believes the city has moved quickly to build more rental housing and has worked to remove some of the layers of bureaucracy and policy that have traditionally slowed down building timelines.

But not everyone in the development community agrees. 

"Somebody said to me he should be a professor of planning, not a planning director. And I think there's some truth to that," said Michael Geller, a longtime developer in many Metro Vancouver municipalities. 

"[He] did not manage to accomplish ...  to streamline this system and bring in that level of efficiency that so many people were hoping for … he was a pleasure to talk to, but he just couldn't make things happen that needed to happen, particularly related to the approval process."

And while councillors were reticent to talk about what led to Kelley's departure, there's no shortage of people who want things to move faster.

"I think there is a frustration that projects take too long," said Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung.

"We have very complex regulations in the City of Vancouver, and they have been added to over the years, and they have never been simplified."

But it will be up to a new chief planner, the results of the years-long citywide plan and the soon to be announced new city manager to try to find a way to satisfy all members of an active and sometimes contradictory minority council. 

As for Kelley? 

"There's a lot of stuff that we put in motion, and that's in place and policy already, and I'm anxious to see the results," he said. 

"It'll be a few years to see it all come fully into view, but it's coming."

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