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ANALYSIS | Housing, transit and ‘strong mayor’ powers: What Toronto’s next chief planner has to contend with | CBC News



The City of Toronto’s hunt for a new chief planner is about to start, and experts say the next person to take the job inherits a long list of challenges and also an opportunity to define the city’s development for decades to come.

Former Toronto chief planner Gregg Lintern retired at the end of 2023 and city staff said the search for someone to fill the crucial civil service role is expected to begin shortly. The city will hire a third-party firm to help recruit a candidate over the next three to four months.

The new planner will take charge in the midst of a housing crisis, which has seen the price of both new homes and rentals skyrocket. A wave of transit development is also underway, which will shift where new communities are built across Toronto.

They’ll also assume the position at a time when the mayor has “strong mayor” powers, effectively changing their boss from city managers to Mayor Olivia Chow herself, said Aidan Grove-White, vice president of consultancy firm StrategyCorp’s land and infrastructure development practice.

“What the planner is going to walk into is very high expectations,” said Grove-White, who’s also a planner and former manager with Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing.

At the top of the successful candidate’s to-do list will be addressing the housing crisis. Toronto has endorsed a provincial goal of building 285,000 new homes in the city by 2030, and Chow’s housing plan calls for 65,000 affordable housing units to be built in that same period. 

WATCH | Gregg Lintern steps down as Toronto’s chief city planner:

Toronto’s chief planner retires after 40 years

After four decades helping design and plan the city, Gregg Lintern has announced he is stepping down as the City of Toronto’s chief planner. Lintern reflected on his career with CBC’s Shawn Jeffords, and highlighted how the city can continue to build transit and address the housing crisis.

Grove-White said the housing crisis ratchets up the pressure on whoever takes the job. Planning time frames are usually set between five and 10 years, but the new chief planner will need to demonstrate results more quickly.

“We need housing now,” he said. “But there are still things that this new planner could do to speed things up a little bit.”

City changes role to bolster planning approvals process

The city is dedicating more resources to address frequent criticism that bureaucracy needlessly slows approvals that would get large housing projects off the ground. It’s even taken some of the traditional oversight of the planning approvals process off the plate of the new chief planner by hiring an executive director to take on those duties.

“Realistically, it had to be done because one person really couldn’t do both jobs,” Mark Richardson, the technical lead of advocacy group HousingNowTO, said. 

“The role of chief planner has only become more and more complex as the City of Toronto has become more and more complex.”

Mark Richardson
HousingNowTO techinical lead Mark Richardson said the city’s new chief planner will need to focus more time on communicating sometimes unpopular policy choices that encourage growth and density. Those frank discussions will be needed to address the city’s housing crisis, he said. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)

The director of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Urban Institute, Murtaza Haider, said even with changes to the role, he would go further, splitting the job into four different positions. Each should have a distinct focus: land use, the economy, transportation and housing. 

“For that particular role of leadership, it cannot be left only with the lens of land use planning,” he said. “It’s a job that requires diverse skills that are hard to accumulate in one person.”

However, Richardson said he’s hopeful the change in the planner’s role will free that person up to bolster communications on new developments and controversial policy changes.

Growth near many of Toronto’s new transit lines is about to take place on a large scale and it will be painful for many residents, he said, which includes spaces along the Scarborough subway extension, the Ontario Line and the Finch West Light Rail Transit line.

“The people in those neighbourhoods are not ready or prepared or really aware of what’s coming,” Richardson said. “I think the idea of splitting this job in two is very important because there’s going to be a lot more site-by-site, area-by-area engagement required.”

Richardson said the planner will need to deliver some “hard truths” to city residents who oppose policy changes that would allow for greater density across the city. Those difficult messages might also need to be directed inside the walls of city hall, as policies that trip up or slow down development are altered, he said.

“In some cases, we’re going to have to take some of these policies and practices and get rid of them, undo some of the things that we’ve done in the past,” he said.

WATCH | What does the future of Toronto transit look like?:

What does the future of Toronto transit look like?

As billions of dollars worth of new transit is being built in Toronto, city councillors will soon consider the next wave of projects. CBC’s Shawn Jeffords dives into a new city report that suggests they could focus heavily on dedicated busways.

Builders not the “enemy”, RESCON says

Richard Lyall, the president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario (RESCON) said the hiring process is the chance to continue to shift the perspective of the city’s planning department. The organization says it represents the builders who construct the bulk of new housing in the province. 

“We’re finding the culture is changing now at the City of Toronto,” he said. “The development industry, or the builders, are not looked at as the enemy. We’re part of the solution too.”

Lyall said the new planner will have the advantage of building on the work of Lintern who helped establish a new public-facing dashboard to report on development applications approval times, among other initiatives. The numbers hadn’t been readily available before and will drive accountability, he said.

“We could probably cut the approvals time in half,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has actually said that’s the goal, but maybe it should be.”

Planner subject to ‘strong mayor’ powers

The new planner will also be subject to a new level of political scrutiny because of the “strong mayor” powers introduced by Premier Doug Ford.

Grove-White said he’ll be watching to see how the new authority given to Toronto’s mayor by the province will have an impact on the pool of candidates.

Traditionally, the chief planner would have reported to senior city managers, but under provincial legislation introduced in 2022, that person will now effectively report to the mayor, who now has the power to fire the civil servant. 

For some potential candidates, exposing themselves to that level of political influence and risk won’t be appealing, he said.

“You give your advice fearlessly and you execute faithfully,” he said.

“That’s the role of the public servant. But when you have such a direct link to someone’s opinion, and that [person] has control over your own career, I think that it changes things significantly.”

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