Stephen Willis: A vision for improved processes and a clearer vision for Ottawa’s planning, infrastructure and economic development

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Stephen Willis
Stephen Willis

Stephen Willis has been on the job as the City of Ottawa’s new general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development for about three months. His portfolio, incorporating several formerly independent departments, represents a massive responsibility directly relevant to the city’s building and development community. It arises from a reorganization by city manager Steve Kanellakos, who has sought to simplify the bureaucracy.

Willis, whose career has spanned the public and private sectors, including (significantly) responsibilities as executive director of the Capital Planning Branch of the National Capital Commission, initially agreed to an interview with OCN when he was preparing to transition to the city job from his last position as a consultant with Stantec. However, it took some time to co-ordinate the conversation, which occurred mid-May in a meeting room within the city’s building at 100 Constellation Cr.

Here are some excerpts from the interview. (You can view a complete transcript at www.ottawaconstructionnews.com/local-news/Willis).

You’ve been at your new responsibilities for several weeks. How is it going?

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of moving parts in this organization, a lot of issues to be briefed on to get up to speed, but on the good side, there are two things I’ve found out.

“One is that much of the work I do today is very similar to what I did when I worked for the NCC. I’m involved with planning. I’m involved with environmental issues. I’m involved with design and construction issues, so that (NCC work) actually proved to be a good preparation for this job.

“But the second part is I really have a fantastic team here. I’m really lucky. I am very impressed how dedicated this team is, and how effective they are at doing their jobs, and I’ve had nothing but great experiences with the team so far, and in integrating in it.”

(While the city was searching for the new department leader, senior managers Lee Ann Snedden and John Smit, managers of policy development and urban design, and candidates for the job Willis won, received high praise from industry representatives for their responsiveness and communication with the industry. These perceptions appear to be continuing under Willis’ leadership.)

“The department has about 750 people across all the different areas, but I have five people who directly report to me,” Willis said. “So I have a director of planning services, I have a director of economic development and long-range planning, I have a director of infrastructure services, a manager heritage and design, and then we have a business support group, which is all the back office support that helps the different services.”

Reading between the lines, it seems that you want to control the bureaucracy, in terms of the volume of it.

“No, I think what I wanted to say is that you have to calibrate the level of effort you put into things versus the output. And so I think the expectation is, if we can find ways to get our infrastructure projects built faster on time, on budget, on schedule, and find ways of streamlining of internal processes to get this to happen, and help the staff make that happen, if we can find ways to make our planning approvals process work as smoothly as possible, those are all good things, right?

“And, sometimes, it’s all the back-up with stuff that no one sees. It comes into the way we handle our approvals and internal processes for just even bringing information to me, and how I get prepared for council. So it is a lot of stuff that people don’t see. We’re working on this at different levels, just trying to make sure we’re putting the effort into front-line services as much as possible.”

Do you have any targets or goals that you want to achieve that you can share?
Willis said the city already has a partnership strategy for working with different groups including Invest Ottawa, Tourism Ottawa, the universities, the high-tech community, “on leveraging our own economic development opportunities, but we want to bring some more precision to the targeted sectors that we’re going after, and really customize our strategies to four or five broad areas within that.”

“With planning approvals, the department’s been doing a lot of really good work in the last couple of years that I want to continue, which includes streamlining the planning approvals process. “We’re going to be doing a review of the site plan approval process in the next year. We’ve also just completed an infrastructure standards review, which both found savings for us, in terms of long-term operations and maintenance of infrastructure, and also it saves in the construction of new homes, where our standards have been adjusted.

“This also addresses one other part of the growth management problems that we’ve discovered is the amount of land that the infrastructure itself consumes. While we’ve been very successful in the last five to 10 years in reducing the amount of land that new homes actually occupy, but the infrastructure to support that has actually been growing.”

Willis said the new infrastructure standards, originally developed by the previous planning department head John Moser, will be based “on the land we need for the accommodation and growth.”

Changes include reducing the required access points for underground utilities, and building cycling paths and multi-use pathways to less stringent standards than roads, which must carry heavier loads. “We’re also looking at storm water and how certain amounts of storm water standards can be adjusted, where water can be deployed in high rain events, those sorts of things.”

Do you have an idea how things will change for builders, developers and even contractors?

“For example, in the subdivision approvals process, we’ve done a lot of work with the development community to look at the infrastructure standards. We’ve also looked at the number of conditions of approval, and we’ve substantially reduced them, and I think there’s room to go even further on that in time, but we’re going to take this latest round and work with it for a while and then come back again.

“You look at it, and if a subdivision is draft approved, and it has over 200 conditions, somebody needs to prepare an answer to clear the conditions, and we have to process and clear the condition. Now if we could reduce that number down to 25 per cent, then there’s less work for the development community, it’s less work for us on the taxpayers’ behalf, responding to it. So we can be more refined, and more precise and we’re adding value, and that translates to savings on the cost of new homes.”

Willis said there are changes to automate, applying electronic resources to circulate development applications to relevant agencies. “We no longer have people preparing pounds of paper – that will save time, and its a better use of the technology we already have.

“I think our goal will always be a continuous approval process, and we’ll keep looking for new ways. Ultimately, we’ll look at new software.”

The interview included questions about Ontario Municipal Board reform, relationships with the National Capital Commission, the implications of intensification and transit-related development. You can read these questions and responses at www.ottawaconstructionnews.com/local-news/willis.

Is there anything I missed that you would like to raise?

“One of the things I get asked a lot about relates to the implications of big changes in the economy more broadly, that might affect the way we are planning in the city – things like technology, autonomous vehicles, immigration and demographic changes, and even the changes in retail and how that’s working with more people doing click-and-buy versus going to stores.”

Willis said the city will need to “anticipate the scenarios that might play out with each of those three big themes” — demographic change, technology, and changes in retail.

“It’s interesting. What we’re seeing more and more on the economic development and planning side is major employees want to locate in very vibrant mixed-use areas which is actually a change from what we would have said 15 years ago. And that will have a big impact on our thinking when we get into the new round of planning.”

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