RESIGNATION BOMBSHELL: The Ballad of Brian Jackson

The former top city planner wasn’t master of his own house inside City Hall and was unpopular with developers and builders outside a select inner circle.

A proposed downtown tower; Brian Jackson
A proposed downtown tower on the east side of Emery Barnes park was the final straw for a group of planners and academics who wrote an open letter expressing concern about the future planning direction in the city (GBL Architects); the former top city planner, Brian Jackson.
This town is a lonely town
Not the only town like this town
This town is a make-you town
Or a break-you-town and bring-you-down town
 
Someone should bottle a new barbecue sauce to accompany the burnt offerings of Brian Jackson’s flame-broiled reputation, which is about all that’s left after the City of Vancouver served up the juicy announcement of his retirement on a tranquil summer Sunday last week. They could call it Vancouverism, best served with sacrificial lamb.
 
Jackson was trapped in an impossible position, from which every apparent exit was an illusion. Except the one he finally took.
 
Hired from Richmond after Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee’s successor Brent Toderian was summarily terminated, Jackson's position was demoted from director of planning to manager of development services. Which pretty much says it all. 
 
Jackson had no safe quarter and no political capital. He wasn’t master of his own house inside city hall, faced open revolt in public hearings and was unpopular with developers and builders outside a select inner circle.
 
Finally, in April he was publicly humiliated when his peers and predecessors issued an open letter protesting the city process and his management of it.
 
In selecting Jackson, Vision Vancouver and city manager Penny Ballem veered sharply away from a decades-long tradition of stellar and visionary city planning in Vancouver exemplified by Ray Spaxman, McAfee and Beasley. Like the website for Vancouverism, Trevor Boddy’s exhibition that displayed our planning, architecture and design in Paris and London, that idea is obsolete. 
 
Under Robertson and Ballem, the chief planner’s role was subordinated to leveraging land development in pursuit of other strategic objectives, not the least of which were lucrative financial inducements in the form of community amenity contributions paid by developers in exchange for rezonings. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that this never happened before the current government came along, but in the past the chief planner had greater autonomy to integrate financial considerations into his or her own vision.
 
It’s hard to tell what Vision Vancouver’s rationale is. It may have been backed into this corner by the financial burdens of managing an almost overwhelming homeless and needy population in a climate of indifference from senior levels of government. One suspects that this is a more expensive city to operate than critics imagine.
 
But none of that matters now. Vision's approach to land development is its Achilles heel. Shrouded in opacity, it lacks social license. The cloud of developer campaign contributions has corroded public confidence to the breaking point. 
 
And now Vancouver’s accomplished and exacting planning community has dropped all pretence of acquiescence.
 
The problem is what do we do about the chief planner’s role now? Come winter, Jackson’s replacement will be the third in the post in about four years. The previous two occupants were either fired or resigned in a deluge of controversy. The job description seems to be to avoid developing one’s own plan for Vancouver’s built environment, spike condo towers into sleepy neighbourhoods, then get yelled at and humiliated for it by the public, the media and one’s own professional peers.
 
Who knows where we’ll find someone who'll take on the role. The chalice is poisoned. Few planners of stature would accept it, and no one else can survive it. 
 
Vision and the city manager must change, and institute a sustainable approach to planning governance. This is not just necessary to the city, it's a political imperative.
 
Coz it isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do.

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