Former chief planner Gil Kelley knew: Vancouver already had enough zoned capacity

Vancouver’s chief planner from 2016 to 2021, Gil Kelley. Photo credit: SFU City Conversations

Gil Kelley made some valid points:

  • The City (municipal government) must not undermine the trust of the community.
  • Vancouver already has largely enough zoned capacity to last for a couple decades to come.

Note: “Zoned capacity” refers to the capacity to develop and accommodate growth without rezoning. The process to develop a property would just involve a development permit application, which is simpler and faster than going through a whole rezoning application, public hearing, and Council approval, because the land is already zoned for a certain level of density. 

(Note – This post has been updated with additional links, at bottom.)

After being hired and starting his new job as Vancouver’s chief planner (serving from 2016 until March 2021), Gil Kelley gave an inaugural presentation on September 28, 2016, to Urbanarium, a forum founded by “a group of the most committed urbanites in Vancouver, including architects, planners and other citizens who are passionate about city making.” The City had gone through an extensive and competitive executive search and hiring process to hire him for the crucial post. To get hired, and to prepare for this crucial inaugural presentation, an experienced pro at his high level, he had done his homework. From the outset he seemed to find high approval ratings and hopes in both the development industry and the neighbourhoods of Vancouver. Some major planning initiatives began or continued, including a citywide plan and a number of corridor plans. But over time, something happened.

For reasons still not disclosed publicly, Mr Kelley left, or was removed from, his post, in March 2021. He was replaced just one month later by an internal promotion, after no external search or hiring process. As the newly installed chief planner, Theresa O’Donnell gave her inaugural presentation to Urbanarium this June 3 (not yet online as far as we can tell).

Excerpts of Mr. Kelley’s inaugural presentation in 2016 still have special importance now in 2021, in the context of the planning department’s failure to provide City Council with crucial planning data it has formally requested a year ago (see our 2020 post, “Show us the data!“) on zoned capacity in Vancouver, and a high profile request that has still been entirely ignored so far (see “Can we have the data now? Prof John Rose writes Vancouver’s new chief planner“). The City has the data, but is not releasing it to Council or the public. Presumably because the real data could undermine the narrative the planning department is using to promote its current plans.

Below are links to the specific parts of Gil Kelley’s presentation (YouTube, full video at this link here).

We need to be very aggressive about affordable housing production, and maintenance of affordable housing stock. That doesn’t mean throwing hard-fought community plans out the window. We’ve got to reconcile these objectives of that community engagement, sometimes years in the making. Detailed conversations about height and FSR [floor space ratio, a measure of density], setbacks, and so forth. Housing people have been at the table for those as well. We don’t just say, “Well, we’ve got a housing crisis, so throw that out the window.” The other piece here is that we can’t undermine the trust of the community. We need to bring the community along as we serve that objective of equity.
to 00:40:15

Michael Geller (veteran architect on panel, final question of the night): I think on behalf of almost everybody here, who says they were just inspired to hear you tonight. I agreed with almost everything you said, except one thing. I just want to ask you, who was the person who told you that the city already has enough zoned capacity? Can you please ask them to show you some townhouse sites, or some sites to put up some stacked townhouses or infill developments. You talk about that in-between housing, but I think you’re going to find that you’re going to create some more zoning.

1:38:44 Gil Kelley
I was speaking broadly about zoning. There are areas to rezone, but when you look at the areas, the bubble diagrams, and you compare that to approx. 150,000 the population will be growing in the next 25 years. There’s probably enough of those areas that only a small portion of that demand can be made up in the lower-density neighbourhoods. I think that a lot of it can actually be accommodated on the corridors and in these areas I was speaking about that are being actively planned now. It doesn’t mean that aren’t going to need some of that and have some tough conversations. But the progress that the city is already making with accessory [secondary] units, laneway cottages [houses] and so forth. Actually, when you add those opportunities up over a large landscape, that is a big chunk of the solution. What I was referring to as that missing middle was the select infill opportunities, where you can do something more than two units, four units, six units, or eight units, and still be compatible with those neighbourhoods. There is a lot of stuff coming online in the Cambie Corridor… we’re talking about some of the underutilized lands, some of the rail lines and corridors, are part of what I was talking about, that could be in that capacity, and it’s easier to get and understandable, and more anticipated, perhaps. I don’t want to whitewash that there are going to be difficult conversations about infill. That’s where we need your help in getting design prototypes that actually make sense. There has actually been a lot of thought put in, and again, one of the reasons we need a big picture [a citywide plan] is just assembling what we already know. There is actually a lot of capacity in the areas that already have been contemplated and that are being planned for increases in density.

(Well into his new post as chief planner, in late 2017, Mr. Kelley in a Vancouver Sun article said that in Vancouver there didn’t seem to be a supply problem in terms of the sheer volume of units being produced.)
‘Not enough focus on the demand side’: Supply alone won’t fix Vancouver housing crisis, says chief planner
(by Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, 28-Nov-2017)
Link –
Excerpt: “I don’t know if it’s been a deliberate focus, but the effect of city policy over the last year, over the past decade, really, has been to focus on rezoning areas, and incentivizing new housing development, and creating vibrant urban neighbourhoods. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that, in the current global investment market, without other controls on the demand side, it’s not enough.”

Asked how much of a shift from the past this viewpoint represents, Kelley said: “I think it’s quite significant.”
“My predecessors had the task of producing housing and increasing density in a way that would increase the vitality and livability of neighbourhoods and housing options. And I think this affordability crisis would have surprised all of them, the extent of it,” he said. “So I’m coming in with a slightly different perspective, which is that we’ve got to tackle all sides of this question.”
It’s a significant shift, too, from what some locals have said for years, including prominent voices from the real estate and development industry, the largest sector of B.C.’s economy.”

5 thoughts on “Former chief planner Gil Kelley knew: Vancouver already had enough zoned capacity

  1. Excellent points and piece, Urbanizta. It does not really matter whether Gil Kelley resign or was fired, although I am very curious which one it was.

    Gil was hired by a very Vision-dominated council and mayor, and he was expected to toe the party line that favoured almost all development proposals. In the two years between when he was hired and the October 2018 election, the vision majority only ever rejected one or two rezoning proposals.

    I am sure that that irked Gil a lot. I am surprised that he outlasted the Vision council at all.

    Aster the election, there was a new council that was split between 4 parties, with an independent mayor. Deadlocked on so many issues before them. Gil probably made many reports and recommendations against various rezoning applications, but council continued to approve almost everything, because there were 5 NPA councilors, and with the pro-development (not really independent) mayor and pro-development councilor Christine Boyle, the development industry had a majority for their projects, even when Colleen Hardwick voted against, which she almost always did.

    Gil could see the writing on the wall.

    • Thank you Sean. We’ll include the title to that link here. Readers – this is a summary of the presentation on “Spacing Vancouver” — Gil Kelley: The Next Leap Forward, OCTOBER 10, 2016 | BY SEAN RUTHEN

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