Yaletown Marinaside Vancouver

Profile: Gil Kelley, general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability, City of Vancouver

The new man with the plan for a 21st-century Vancouver
| Chung Chow

It’s been six months since the announcement of Gil Kelley’s appointment as the City of Vancouver’s general manager, planning, urban design and sustainability, and five months since he took office. On his wall is a five-point plan flowing from discussions he had with managers in his first few weeks, one that’s guided his thinking on conversations with city staff and community members in the intervening months.

Vancouver, he says, is at a critical juncture in its development – perched between the consensus that allowed the successes of what’s become known as Vancouverism, and the uncertainties that its momentum has brought.

The pace of change and development, combined with a generational shift, has created the need for a new consensus to meet the challenges of the future – one that could be equally successful if the city can again harness public trust and confidence.

“Where should we really be going? What does that really entail?” he asked, the snow-capped peaks of the North Shore mountains shining in the background.

“What is the bigger picture? Where should development go? And how does it tie into other community aspirations around sustainability, affordability and so forth? These don’t all seem connected at this point.”

The challenges aren’t unique to Vancouver; cities all along the West Coast face similar decisions, but Kelley feels Vancouver is in a particularly strong position both historically and politically to make the choices its future requires.

On the one hand, it enjoys the legacy of the planning that earned it bragging rights as one f the most livable cities on the planet – but it played out downtown, which made consensus easier to achieve.

“There weren’t a lot of neighbours there to express concerns [about] either the scale or the density or the rapidity of that evolution. It was a great thing,” he said.

“Today’s game is a little more difficult, in the sense that the development isn’t concentrated downtown – a lot of it is along the corridors, the transit lines that we’ve built, infill in neighbourhoods.”

Planners need to work more intensely with residents to ensure connections between what’s happening on the ground and what cities would like to see happen, and how it all fits into the larger scheme of things.

“I don’t know that we’ve actually had that conversation as a community for a long time,” Kelley said.

“My view coming in [is] there’s been an absence of the big-picture planning for a number of years.”

The result is a diminished trust and confidence in the city’s intentions, not to mention the positive changes development can achieve.

Without that trust and confidence, Kelley said, Vancouver risks becoming like San Francisco, where the city and community groups fight building to building to achieve their goals but only become more entrenched in their own perspectives.

Portland, where Kelley spent a decade overseeing the planning department, was quite different. Under his leadership, the idea of a 20-minute city had developed – one that was compact, walkable and, in many ways, a model for Vancouver. Kelley sees an opportunity to guide Vancouver in that direction. It’s made the right moves, but it risks losing its way as community groups push back against rapid change and existing planning processes.

“Vancouver has the potential, both with its formal political leadership but also with the community expectation about needing the big idea, ‘Where are we going?’” Kelley said, citing it as key to his switching San Francisco for Vancouver. “For me, that’s very attractive as an urbanist.”

Born in San Francisco in 1953, Kelley grew up in Portland. His father, Craig Kelley, was executive secretary of the Portland Association of Building Owners and Managers, which rallied downtown businesses to sponsor the city’s first downtown plan in 1972 in response to the impacts of suburbanization.

Kelley tagged along to meetings, and the experiences sank in. By 1974, he was studying political economy in a self-directed learning program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. It led to a role relocating North Bonneville when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a second powerhouse at the Bonneville dam.

“They wanted to widen the river channel in the Columbia River,” he said. “I came in as a student … and then got hired on by the town as a planner to work on relocating that community as a whole community. … It was one part community organizing and one part physical planning.”

He returned to the Bay Area in 1981, running his own consulting firm before becoming Berkeley’s first senior planner for environmental planning and, eventually, planning director. He expanded the planning department into a larger entity that included economic development, housing, redevelopment and other functions – a prelude to the holistic approach he pursued as Portland’s chief planner.

When his term in Portland ended in 2009, he resumed graduate studies as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design and courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

All the while he continued his consulting practice, taught at Portland State University and spent a year as senior vice-president, development, for Harsch Investment Properties LLC in Portland before joining San Francisco as director of citywide planning.

It was in San Francisco that a headhunter from Vancouver called.

“I originally said, ‘Thanks, but I’m really busy here in San Francisco and I’m enjoying it. I love Vancouver, but it’s not the right time for me. And besides, I think you ought to change some of your organization.’”

A second call a month later promised him that the city was serious about big-picture planning.

He bit.

Since starting work in mid-September, Kelley has lived in Yaletown’s Marinaside neighbourhood, ideal for walking to work and exploring the city (he hasn’t driven in Vancouver since he arrived; his wife has made just a few trips). Getting to know how the city works, and the people who live here, including his 140 staff, has consumed his first months.

It’s all part of being a listener and agent provocateur.

“It [starts] with listening and then positing some choices to be made – and hopefully a creative impulse that allows people to think about things a bit differently – and then sticking to that agenda,” said Kelley, who’s drafting a five-year plan for the department. “I didn’t come to Vancouver just to spend a year telling people how to do their business and then just waltz off. For me it was a big choice to invest the time and energy to come here.” •

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