Outgoing Vancouver chief planner Brian Jackson speaks out: BCB exclusive

On the eve of his retirement, Brian Jackson talks about his sometimes controversial tenure and his legacy as Vancouver’s chief planner 

Vancouver’s chief planner Brian Jackson leaves his City of Vancouver post Friday after three years on the job—and his fair share of controversy. The Richmond native’s journey through the public sector has taken him from B.C.’s Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing in Victoria to the City of Toronto to working as a senior associate with the IBI Group in southern California and Nevada. Immediately prior to being appointed Vancouver’s top planner in 2012, he served in a similar capacity in Richmond for four years. Now 60, Jackson has decided to leave the high-stress world of politics behind and work occasionally as a consultant on projects around the world.

Back in April, several former senior Vancouver city planners and outside planners wrote an open letter to the mayor and council complaining about several of your decisions. How did you feel about that letter?
That letter was full of inaccuracies. And it was done in a way that wasn’t trying to find solutions. It was done from the perspective of being antagonistic. I’m here to get the job done and deliver a very important council agenda in terms of affordable housing, improving design, heritage, dealing with major staffing issues, rental housing, delivering area plans, delivering major buildings, minor buildings, whatever. It was a diversion from what I needed to do to keep moving with that agenda.

How do you see yourself fitting among the city’s planners so far?
They’ve gone back and forth between intellectuals and doers—from somebody who was more of a doer, like Larry Beasley, back to an intellectual like Brent Toderian. And I consider myself a doer: not dogmatic, but trying to build consensus, trying to juggle all the different perspectives we have.

Would you say the problems with the city are more complex now than in Larry Beasley’s day?
The issues have been made more complex in the last three to five years than they ever were before. A planner didn’t have to deal with affordable housing because there were always programs offered by the provincial and federal governments. This city didn’t do anything about rental housing for decades, in terms of any type of program. We now have a program that encourages rental housing to be built. There was nothing really happening for 30 years on the heritage front. So all of those issues that people are demanding the city do something about, the planners didn’t have to deal with at the time.

Some people are suspicious that the recent decision to remove the viaducts is going to benefit developers the most. How do you respond?
The city report shows that Concord Pacific is getting more developable land than was previously approved, absolutely. But by far the biggest beneficiary is the city, because of the amount of land freed up for development opportunities or conversion to park.

Would you say Concord is paying dearly for that developable land?
Absolutely. There is a very complex series of negotiations to be held with Concord as to the amount of contribution they will be making toward the removal of the viaducts.

What are some accomplishments you can you lay claim to?
On the big picture front, it’s the adoption of the Downtown Eastside plan, the West End plan and the Marpole plan. I did my masters thesis in heritage and I feel very confident I’ve made a difference on the heritage side, from the smallest things like saving houses all way up to policy. On a bigger scale is the Heritage Action Plan and the actions coming out of that. You’ve seen a portion of it with First Shaughnessy, but the next stage is going to be discretionary zones and ways we can save character houses in those zones. I’m proud of the amount of office development that’s been approved downtown—we’ve got about three million square feet in office development right now—and then I worked on delivering affordable housing without the city having to contribute any money.

What are you going to do in your retirement?
I’m 60. I’ve worked as a planner for 35 years. I believe ethically it’s important for a planner to step away from the city he’s been a planner for and not get involved as a social commenter.

You mean you won’t be writing letters about the next planner?
I will not be writing letters about the next planner or the next planning issue. I will step away.