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Fewer hoops expected for developers under Vancouver’s new urban planner

Thu, 11/15/2012

When Vancouver’s new top urban planner speaks to a packed crowd of real estate executives Thursday, he’s expected to deliver a message developers will be pleased with.

After taking over from fired planner Brent Toderian this summer, Brian Jackson, the new general manager of planning and development, said the city’s method of individually negotiating with developers for community amenity contributions (CACs) needs to be reformed for a standardized approach.

Under the current system of rezoning, the city asks the developer to pay for public facilities like parks, plazas, daycares and community centres. City planners negotiate the contribution amount based on the expected land value gain that comes from allowing more building on a plot. The system, introduced with Coal Harbour rezoning about 15 years ago, is credited with funding the urban design and “livability” features which Vancouver is now internationally admired for.

But over the past few years, as Vancouver’s property boom has slowed, developers have complained that planners wield too much power, and are demanding too much cash.

When Brian Jackson addresses hundreds of top development executives at the Urban Development Institute’s luncheon Thursday, he will likely offer details on his reasons and plans for reforming the city’s CAC system.

“Certainly Brian Jackson has indicated the process needs to be fixed, and city hall is indicating support for change,” Urban Development Institute president Anne McMullin said in an interview this week.

She said in 2011 over $180 million was collected by the city in CACs.

Standardized systems work in municipalities like Coquitlam and Richmond, where Brian Jackson was hired from, but in Vancouver “it is very difficult because there is a lack of transparency, and there is no accountability about how the negotiation is conducted,” McMullin said. “It has become how much money can get out of this development.”

On the other side of the CAC debate is Brent Toderian. The young planner, called brash by some and visionary by others, was fired without cause in January and paid $211,828 in severance, according to documents obtained by The Province.

In an interview Toderian said he wouldn’t comment on the reasons for his firing, but he did offer comments on CACs.

Toderian said for “many months” before he was fired he was involved in negotiations for a compromise solution to the CAC system. He says standardization should occur in less dense areas of development, but where big projects with high density are proposed, the city needs to retain its power to negotiate. Especially as the province downloads costs around transit, the city’s discretion to negotiate is more important than ever, he said.

“I have deep concerns,” Toderian said this week. “I did note in some of Brian’s (statements) about going to a general mechanized system, and I hope since coming to the city he has had some good discussions (with staff) to learn the power of the system.”

Gordon Price, a former NPA councillor and city planning expert, said the hybrid formula advocated by Toderian of a mix between mechanized and negotiated CACs is best for Vancouver’s future.

“The city shouldn’t give up this wonderful cash machine,” Price said. “The added value (from rezoning) has to go back to the public in some way.”

But Michael Geller, a developer and former NPA council candidate, said he believes in the most extreme cases CAC negotiations cost developers up to $80,000 per condo unit, which is a price directly passed on to the future homeowner.

“Many people still question whether it is even legal for the city to be in effect selling additional zoning,” Geller said. “Let’s make (the CAC formula) clearly above board.”

Brian Jackson was not available for interview about his CAC plans before his speech Thursday, and the city won’t comment on reasons for Toderian’s firing, spokespeople said.

scooper@theprovince.com

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