Do consultants have the answers we need to decide what kind of a city we want?

SwP thumbnail graphicBy Pepper Parr

February 1st, 2017



Bfast – Burlington for Accessible affordable Transit, published a piece on what a consultant said to city council.

They,  Bfast,  seem to be suggesting that consultants don’t always get it right,


Brent Toderian

On February 11th, noted Urbanist and Twitter phenom Brent Toderian was invited to come to Burlington to speak with City Council and Staff, as well as to present to the public as part of Mayor Goldring’s “Inspire Burlington” series.

Here are some things we picked up on from Brent’s presentation to Council:

Brent Toderian’s first point was that we need to change our thinking from being a suburb to being urban. We need to look at three dimensional streets rather than one dimensional roads. He noted that a suburb with more density will result in gridlock and congestion. In order to make this transition, and to position us for success our government needs to treat the Official Plan review as a rethink, not a tweak. Part of this is being willing to fail before we succeed.

Mobility: Brent stressed the need to prioritize transit, walking, and cycling over cars. We now have a very car-centred system meaning that we have to go well beyond the so-called balanced approach to moving budget dollars from cars to transit, walking and cycling. The car as the primary means of getting around has had a 40-50 year head start, so just seeking balance now won’t get us there. He also stressed that in urban places, balance isn’t good enough.

Transit: Brent noted that western Canada’s largest condo developer has said that the key factor in real estate development has changed from “location, location, location” to “transit, transit, transit”. Brent called improving transit “our strongest opportunity” as a city.

Strategic Plan WorkbookStrategic Plan and Budget: Brent noted that the City’s Strategic Plan was good – but the budget was not. He stated “the truth of a city’s aspirations is not in its plan, but in its budget”.

Making the transition -“pull the bandaid off quick” Brent was very critical of the slow approach re bike lanes. He said this approach maximized the controversy. Instead, he recommended rapid completion of a viable network that would work immediately. He also said that separation was needed on arterials – but not on other streets. Although he cited cycling in this approach, it would also apply to transit.

Prioritize the incentive for taking transit: Brent said that drivers need to see a benefit to take transit for example, bus only lanes that allow buses to move faster than cars.

Parking: Brent emphatically said “get out of Park’n Ride” (will Metrolinx listen?). He suggested that the City constrain the supply of parking.

Tall buildiong design - material useIntensification: Brent discussed how building density right is a challenge because it can result in “the sweet spot of failure”; intensification on too low a scale will create traffic congestion but not enough density to support efficient transit. We need to have an honest conversation about the real cost and consequences to growing the right and wrong ways, with respect to climate change and public health. The starting point of “I don’t want the city to change…” is common, but ‘stable neighbourhoods’ are a lie. All cities are changing in ways beyond the control of local government, so take the word ‘stable’ out of your vocabulary. Cities should reject the idea that there is an optimal number for growth (how big should we get) and worry about quality instead of quantity.

Doing the wrong thing better: Painted bike lanes were one example of this; need to make sure we don’t mistake for doing the right thing.

Public Engagement: Your goal should be to convince the convinceable; as leaders you need to change the conversation. Just because we don’t have consensus doesn’t mean we can’t have an intelligent conversation.

Burlington Transit: It was upsetting to hear that Brent Toderian did not get to meet with anyone from Burlington Transit.

As I read through the piece I found myself asking – is this how we decide what kind of a city we want and how we build it? Do we have to bring in consultants who have never lived here, never walked the streets, never attended an event?

Toderian told city council that they need to get rid of rural names – hang on – Walkers Line, Guelph Line and Appleby Line are part of the history and a part of the feel for the city. They remind of us our rural roots.

They no next to nothing about how rich our agricultural background is.

These consultants want to come into town for short periods of time, get very well paid for their time, spout all the most recent flavour of the month in urban design and move on to the next consulting assignment.

James Ridge Day 1 - pic 2

City manager James Ridge – an old friend of Toderian who he had worked with during his time in Vancouver. Toderian got turfed by a th Vancouver city council.

Both city manager James Ridge and Director of Planning Mary Lou Tanner, both relatively new to Burlington, knew of Toderian and his work – they thought the guy was great before he had spoken as much as a paragraph. It was almost like he was a member of the club coming back into the circle.

It’s the citizens that decide what kind of a community they want. Consultants have a place and their opinions are important but the people who grew up in the city and want to see it evolve and be something they at least recognize when they are taking their grandchildren to events.

There is nothing wrong with progress and growth – it just has to take place at a pace that works for the people who live here.  Why else do we have a community?

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11 comments to Do consultants have the answers we need to decide what kind of a city we want?

  • Jade Ed

    Yep- you couldn’t make this stuff up could you? Apparently the City of Burlington cannot function without the aid of consultants – refer to the 2017 budget request by City Manager James Ridge for a $550,000.00 ” just in case piggy bank” – approved – Cha-ching! (View on page 27 pf 2017 Proposed Operating Budget if anyone is interested)
    So if it is inevitable that we are to have consultants lecturing Burlingtonians on how to live and what kind of city they are going to get for their tax dollars, as in so many other past situations, I would personally feel comfortable if it wasn’t all so “cosy”.

    As previously reported (Inside Halton Feb 10th 2016) “It was city manager James Ridge who called in his former Vancouver colleague to advise Burlington on intensification and review of its official plan.” Cha-Ching!

    OK – so James Ridge in his position as City Manager for COB calls in his ex-colleague Brent Toderian who was fired from his position (without cause) as Director of Planning, City of Vancouver in 2012 after almost 6 years.

    I think it’s only natural to want check this guy out – after all consultants charge LARGE! A quick internet search brought up the following article published in the Vancouver Sun 31 January 2016 by Jeff Lee (the link to the article in below for anyone who would like to read it)

    This particular article provided a bit of background as seen from a local (Vancouver) point of view. It would appear that the impetus for the firing may have been the fractious relationship that existed between then City Manager Penny Ballam and Brent Toderian – well let’s be honest – there’s no “may have” about it is there ? Consider the following after Hallam herself was ousted from her position as City Manager in 2015.

    15 September 2015 – CBC News Vancouver (direct quote)

    “When news of Ballem’s departure broke, former Vancouver city planner Brent Toderian, who was let go at the recommendation of Ballem in 2012, issued a tweet simply saying “What goes around, comes around.”

    What goes around, comes around. #Vancouver #VanPoli

    — @BrentToderian

    Speaking to the CBC later, Toderian, who is now a city planning consultant for cities around the world (Cha-ching!), reflected that Ballem’s departure represented an opportunity to change the culture at city hall.
    “It really is almost the entire city-making function that is about to be refreshed. That is both challenging and an incredible opportunity. “The morale at city hall has not been the best in recent years, so I think this is a chance to get back to Vancouver city hall being an international model.”

    Mmmmm -classy guy – trash your old boss – reveals quite a lot. Type A personality????

    So how did we end up in this situation? Like Mayor Goldring I seem to have lost the plot. REVIEW TIME !!!!!

    23 March 2015 -James Ridge takes up his position as City Manager (as per COB web site)

    11 February 2016 Consultant Brent Toderian arrives at the invitation of ex-collegaue James Ridge to advise Burlington on intensification and review of its official plan -Cha-Ching!

    21 September 2016 (as reported Inside Halton) Mary Lou Tanner, Burlington’s chief planner and director of building announces that at a cost of $20,000, Consultants BrookMcIllroy -Cha-Ching! have produced the 28 page Tall Buildings Guidelines – she described it as “a living document” that will evolve as staff has more experience implanting it. What does that even mean?

    14 November 2016 Consultant Brent Toderian, invited back again to lecture, apparently by the Mayor, but this time with Consultant Jarret Walker (Jarrett Walker and Associates) -Cha-Ching!

    8 December The Financial Overview of the 2017 Proposed Operating Budget is presented to The Community and Corporate Services Committee. James Ridge makes a pitch for $550,000.00 in 2017 budget -Cha-Ching!

    23 January 2017 (After review and approval by The Community and Corporate Services Committee 16th and 19th January 2017) Council approves the 2017 Operating Budget. Signed, sealed and delivered! Cha-Ching!

    25th January 2017 it’s reported that Developer Carriage Gate Homes has dropped the BIG planning application on the planning department’s collective overflowing desk-if approved massive Cha-ching! Marianne Meed Ward reports it in her news letter as if it was a shock and a big surprise and arranges a public meeting. Sadly though, as correctly reported in this publication, it appears to conform to the Tall Buildings Guidelines – can you say OMB -Cha-Ching!

    So after a long journey in response to your very pertinent question posed in the title of your article – “do we need consultants?” As we have seen so many times in the past COB seems totally unable to function without them I suppose the answer must be yes.

    Is Brent Toderian, for example, the right choice for Burlington? I personally find it difficult to imagine a less suitable fit. He appears to have no time for consensus building; according to him you spend your energy convincing the convincible – so does that mean you ignore the yet to be convinced? Absolutely! He never ever wants to hear the words “stable neighbourhood” because in his world they do not exist; his advice is to take those words right out of the conversation.

    Unsurprisingly taxpayers are viewed as nothing more than cash cows who then become an annoyance when they dare to try to get in way of “planning” As per the Brent Toderian’s of this world,rip that bandaid off quickly.
    Ouch! – lookout residents

  • Ken

    I certainly believe we can increase density in this City and that we will. We should increase cycling but also respect that no one travels to their well paid professional job in suit on a bike. No one takes their kid to hockey on the bus.

    And how about parking??? Anyone who owns a high end condo in downtown Toronto owns a car. Do you expect people with their $750,000 condos to live like students? Let market forces dictate where and when “affordable” housing is built.

    Brian Toderian’s thinking is akin to “We had to destroy the village to save the village”. The fact is “we” are totally in control of our future. We can easily hit our intensification numbers without any changes to the Official Plan or without any heroic efforts.

    So? Why would we grind down our our standard of living?

  • Penny

    What may work in Vancouver, does not necessarily work in Burlington. Consultants can only provide their suggestions. It is up to Council and the residents of Burlington to provide the vision on how we want our City to look – ” A Made In Burlington” solution.

    Personally I have to question if those at City Hall are the people I want making these decisions for me. I am watching as the waterfront is being destroyed by over intensification. I can’t believe that the residents bought into the “Windows to the Lake”marketing that went on with the approval of this development.

  • David Fenton

    I live part of the year in Naperville Illinois, like Burlington is to Canada, Naperville is one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S.
    My Canadian home has been here in the core just West of Brant St for some thirty years.
    The two places are alike in a lot of ways except that Naperville embraced their gentrification, Mercedes parked all over downtown, coffee shops full of the smartly dressed, book stores, a well attended library, beautiful schools.
    Cyclists are not welcome as they have been found to be a nuisance, I suppose they have busses, but I never see any.
    Flags flying from the porches of century homes in the downtown core, families enjoying the river walk.
    They don’t appear to be socially ashamed of their status. They did not need a consultant, they used common sense and listened to the residents, we on the other hand….well i’ll let you fill in the rest.

  • craig

    Excellent reply I could not sgree more government is for the people by the people Burlington is not acting that way so we need governmnet for the people to be elected next time and civil servants who do what the electorate want including not wasting tax dollars on consultants of not value to the citizens. Democracy please come back to Burlington.

  • James

    Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, outside consultants can sometimes be valuable to provide a fresh and impartial view when everyone else is too close to the subject to think objectively. If Burlington planning was done strictly based upon the wants of the local vocal minority, we’d all be in trouble, and many of us likely wouldn’t be living in the homes we live in now.

  • CityBiker

    I nominate Mr Steve White to challenge the office of mayor. Please fill out your paper work so you can continue to campaign and boast that you know better than everyone else.
    These so called experts were selected for their proven track record and success in other jurisdictions. Our fine city is growing faster than we can plan for. This requires serious thought in how we choose to move forward. It’s not my city, it belongs to my kids.
    We have city council who listen (they reply to my emails, anyways), you have a right to delegate to council as well.
    Our city also has many volunteer community groups, Cycling Advisory Committee being one. I think they were looking for new members. Might as well sign up, you can share your opinion in an open discussion. Help advise council on the best way forward.

    • Stephen White

      Dear City Biker:

      No…actually, I don’t know better than everyone else. What I do know, having actually spent seven years working at Queen’s Park, and over thirty years in the private sector, is that public policy isn’t formulated in a vacuum. It actually requires input from all sectors of society, not just a handful of citizens pushing a personal agenda.

      The Cycling Advisory Committee is no longer an advisory group. It is an advocacy group. In the minutes of their July 18th, 2016 meeting their Chair actually admonished members to be careful about advocating for bike lanes. If this Cycling Advisory Committee was a real advisory committee then its members would recognize this and act accordingly. An advisory group isn’t a pressure group, and unlike a pressure group doesn’t try to impose their will on others, including public officials.

      Thanks for the invite to join the Cycling Advisory Committee, but if it’s all right with you I’ll pass (N.B. by the way, lest you suspect I am anti-cycling, I do have a bike, I do ride and I enjoy it. I also know the rules of the road, use hand signals, and don’t expect preferential treatment). However, rest assured: I will be out campaigning next election as I have done previously for candidates who actually believe that a municipal government should listen to the people and have the courage of their convictions.

  • LB

    Thank You Mr. Stephen White. You have made excellent points that will resonate with many Burlington residents. Our Council should do the same as the Vancouver Council and turf this so called “expert consultant”! How convenient that City Manager James Ridge is an old friend of Mr. Toderian…perhaps he too should come under greater scrutiny. The Mayor and our Council are failing us.

  • Stephen White

    James Ridge and Brent Toderian are symptomatic of what is wrong with Burlington…and by extension, what is wrong with the highly elitist, arrogant policy-making/decision-making process at Burlington City Hall.

    The Mayor’s focus is to bring in so-called “experts” who have no understanding or connection with this City, its history, the community or the residents. These experts impart their noble wisdom and insights all of which have been culled from their experience in another region in another part of the country. They superimpose their philosophy on a gullible and willing Council headed by a Mayor who, to put it kindly, isn’t exactly known for the courage of his convictions or his backbone. The Plan is adopted and then shared reluctantly with the masses (a.k.a. voters) who are expected to adopt it without criticism.

    This mindset can be seen in so many areas of Burlington politics. The so-called experts on the Cycling Committee impart their wisdom and come up with the New Street Road Diet. The Transportation department is putting up speed bumps at $4K a piece (do we really need four on Spruce Avenue in less than a kilometre?). We are is awash in building permits to put up 26-storey highrises that are destroying the character of neighbourhoods, particularly in Ward 2.

    Here in the real world where most of us live and work (and certainly those of us who read the Gazette!), citizens actually have a voice, and that voice should be heard at all stages of the policy and decision-making process. The vision that is created for this City should evolve naturally, not be superimposed by some outside expert with a limited connection with the needs of the electorate. In Oakville ratepayers associations are routinely consulted and engaged, and their opinions carry an impact at City Hall. Here in Burlington, people like Mr. Toderian see voters as something to be convinced through clever marketing and advertising.

    There is one thing Mr.Toderian says though on which I do agree. When he talks about making the transition he says to “pull the band aid off quickly”. That really resonates with me Brent….and that’s exactly what Burlington residents will do next municipal election with our municipal representatives….starting with your friend the Mayor, then the Council, and then ultimately, with public servants like James Ridge. Hopefully, after 2018, we’ll get some people on this Council and in the public service who treat voters’ opinions with the respect they deserve and not an obstacle in the decision-making process.

    • StoneyCanuk

      I agree that Burlington’s character is being destroyed by “so called” experts with their “road diets” that have caused severe road congestion; overzealous use of speed bumps and road signs; City planners, architects, developers with the help of the OMB that have helped to decimate the older homes and properties to make way for high-rise condos… As you say, “the city should evolve naturally” not be mandated by Government and those with a clear vested financial interest.