September 29, 2016

An evening with Gil Kelley-General Manager of Planning, Urban Design, and Sustainability

The Urbanarium held an event last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre playhouse where Gil Kelley, the new General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability spoke about himself, his new role, and his perception  of the new directions for the City of Vancouver.
Vancouver has always had an intense familial  relationship with planning and the Director of Planning for the city. We all want to know what is going on, and what mettle that person has for city making, kind of like keeping an eye on an obscure relative you want to like but want to assure yourself that they are truly related to you. I would say as a City we take this position very seriously, and embrace the process of city planning as a tacit expression of our own exuberance, hopes, dreams, and futurism.
Gil may have said it correctly when he alluded to the fact that both Portland Oregon and Vancouver have  passionate focus upon “urban planning substituting for major league sports”. We want to watch, participate, and if our team is losing, we sure want that Planning Department to know.
Describing himself as an active listener that likes to ask “why are we doing this?” Gil perceives his role as part planning director, and part doctor, diagnosing challenges and creating capacity building opportunities with his staff.
Gil worked for the City of Berkeley California for 14 years, was Director of Planning in Portland Oregon for 9 years, and worked and consulted for the City of San Francisco lastly as the Director of Citywide Planning. He also has an abiding passion for educational advancement of planning and was a Loeb Scholar at Harvard University. He has the unique experience of working in the four big cities in Cascadia “where land and sea converges” and described the issues facing San Francisco in terms of housing affordability and access as the harbinger of what could occur in Vancouver.

Describing the years of  Director of Planning Ray Spaxman’s leadership and that of  Co-Directors of Planning Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee as the decades of “big thinking” in the planning department, Gil noted that Vancouver’s big picture may seem fuzzy, but it is a moment in time to talk about the global impacts of climate change and the transformative global economy. Foresight and imagination are needed to avoid a two class society. Gil described the City of San Francisco where millennials and baby boomers are drawn to the inner core of the city while lower-income people and families left the city. While 70,000 people come to San Francisco annually, 60,000 leave, resulting in a 10,000 annual population increase in a city of 850,000 people.
A new diverse economy supportive of inclusivity and equitable for all people is needed. In the past, traditional city planning and the civic tradition was popular, but now a new alignment is needed to bolster livability, and address the need for social equity. Add to this mix the need to bolster our waterside city against earthquakes and floods, and Gil points out the need for a “four city compact” where San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver can discuss and compare urban issues and solutions to common challenges, and the paradigm of inequity.
To create affordable housing, community engagement is needed and trust created with the community. Gil notes in his review Vancouver has the zoned capacity to take growth up to the year 2041, and stresses the importance of dealing with housing as a regional issue. He also mentioned the importance of good city planning for public health, but did not elaborate.
The rapid pace of development in Vancouver means that there needs to be staff empowerment and mentoring for planning staff to problem solve. Gil proposes revisiting the area plans to assess what worked, and what didn’t work. He identifies the need to be proactive, re-evaluate the effectiveness of layered by-laws, and bridge the generational gap, where there are new attitudes about density, development, lifestyle and transit. Couple this with a look at whether community amenity contributions from development are going to their best use, and how sustainability goals can be best achieved.
This Urbanarium event had three men on the stage-one the guest, two other prominent local architects with Urbanarium, all older males, all dressed the same, not reflecting the diversity of the audience and certainly not Vancouver. Gil took aim at the architectural profession, noting that it was time for architectural design to do a better job on the street, with much of False Creek’s older design “looking tired”. He expressed the importance of urban design of public space between buildings, thinking about the “missing middle” a housing form in between single family and apartment living, and stressed the importance of thinking as a region to create livability and equity.
Gil has a thoughtful reasoned approach to city building that will incorporate and bolster the strong skills of planning staff. With his emphasis on strengthening the relationship regionally and building the trust of citizens we may indeed be entering the next phase of “Big Thinking” in Vancouver’s Planning Department.

Director of Citywide Planning

City and County of San Francisco

April 2014 – Present (2 years 6 months)San Francisco, CA

Practitoner in Residence

Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University

December 2011 – Present (4 years 10 months)


Gil Kelley & Associates, Urban and Strategic Planning

2009 – Present (7 years)

Senior Vice President, Director of Development

Harsch Investment Properties

April 2013 – April 2014 (1 year 1 month)Portland Area, Oregon

Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies

Portland State University

April 2009 – March 2014 (5 years)Portland, Oregon

Loeb Fellow, Graduate School of Design

Harvard University

August 2009 – 2010 (1 year)


Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

2009 – 2010 (1 year)

Director of Planning

City of Portland, OR

2000 – 2009 (9 years)

Director of Planning & Development

City of Berkeley, CA

1985 – 1999 (14 years)

Urban Planning Consultant, San Francisco, California

Gil Kelley & Associates

1981 – 1985 (4 years)

Senior Planner

Town of North Bonneville, WA

1974 – 1978 (4 years)

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  1. Thank you for the write up, Sandy. He sounds thoughtful and not glib or a knowitall, yet a stand up guy. Empowering staff is much needed, as is the repair job with neighbourhoods. Actually reviewing area plans – wow!
    Council will have to do its part by being patient and not directing this necessary work as he builds his team’s capacity and the outreach program. I know, it will hard for them; they like staff to know who’s boss, but we can’t afford another serious misstep on this file.
    Like all of us, I really wish Gil well.

  2. Good synopsis Sandy.
    Gil pushed all the necessary buttons; sea level rise, climate change, transit, etc., so City Hall will be happy. As Frank says, we all wish him well. He also plugged the Broadway subway, although he confessed to not yet be aware of the complexities regarding the other municipalities of the region, while saying these other areas were essential in all considerations. This same disconnect applied to his comment on their being sufficient zoning capacity in Vancouver until 2041, while he also said that growing inequality and the movement to the suburbs by the less well off is a big problem in SFO and must be addressed everywhere.
    Gil, in the suburbs developers are building row-houses/townhouses in enormous quantities and they sell immediately to just those less wealthy people you refer to. To stop the less wealthy moving to the suburbs requires the City of Vancouver to re-zone substantial areas to quickly meet this market need, otherwise there will be more long distance commuting and it is not going to be along the Broadway corridor, it will be to those parts of Delta, Ladner, Surrey, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, Walnut Grove and Langley, where these massive volumes of affordable townhouses, with postage stamp gardens for the kiddies, are being built.
    Many western raised 20-somethings may well not be breeding as much as their parents did but many of the immigrants we are welcoming these days, and we are receiving high numbers of new immigrants, are still having children and once they become established here they do not want to live in apartments or condo blocks.
    Notably, Gil did not once mention the Downtown East Side of Vancouver.
    Vancouver may be the employer and therefore the primary focus of the new planner but this is a region with municipalities that often have differing views on what to do. This is not an amalgamated region.
    I expect the main focus for the next while is going to be on the land around the north-east of False Creek, as the city demolishes the viaducts and guides the redevelopment of this extension to the downtown waterfront and the soft planning for the Broadway corridor, sorting out the tensions between the values of the potential station sites and the size of the new buildings all along the route. There will also be attempts at negotiations with the First Nations on the Jericho site, which is also in this neighbourhood. As well as to whether the subway pushes out al the way to UBC.
    Perhaps there will be some planning for sea-level rise and a massive barrier will be envisioned for Point Grey and Spanish Banks.
    Meanwhile, the ‘burbs will continue to grow.

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  4. Sounds like a promising relationship between the city, its residents and administration is about to develop with the new director.
    Mr. Kelley seems to have a strong set of defendable principles, and could be around to introduce them to several administrations. I found the part on regionalism and the Four City Compact on the West Coast especially interesting. We need that kind of outlook to counter the overbearingly myopic attention (largely media driven) on spot development and politics in just one city.
    It also seems he will be accessible and open to staff, a supremely important characteristic of successful leadership and building employee morale. Though time will tell, this is promising considering the management partnership with new city manager, Sadhu Johnston.

  5. Did he mention required city-wide upzoning described to prevent flight from the city ?
    Did he mention Chinese wealth transfer, accumulation and speculation at locals’ expense and the associated income tax evasion ?
    Did he mention under-taxation of real estate of foreigners vs. locals ?

    1. No, as Sandy related, “Gil notes in his review Vancouver has the zoned capacity to take growth up to the year 2041, …”
      Michael Geller spoke and said he did not agree with this.

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