Stephen Willis’ observations about planning, infrastructure and development for the City of Ottawa


Below is an edited transcript of the interview between Ottawa Construction News editor Mark Buckshon and Stephen Willis, the city’s new general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development.
Q: I’m impressed by the challenge you’ve got on your hands because this is a new responsibility for the city, taking three very large areas of responsibilities for the city and melding them under one manager. You’ve been at it for a few weeks now, how is it going?
A: Actually it’s funny, because knowing this interview is coming up, I actually looked it up this morning (May 19). It’s been eighty one days on the job – so I’m not within my first 100 days if you look at it. You know, it’s on the one hand I’m drinking out of a fire hose . . . there’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of moving parts in this organization, a lot of issues to be briefed up on, and 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 did today is very similar to what I did when I worked for National Capital Commission (NCC). I’m involved with planning, I’m involved with environmental issues, I’m involved with design and construction issues, so that 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 at 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.
Q: How many people report to you, directly or indirectly?
A: The department, depending on where, the number is about 750 people across all of the different areas, but I have five people who directly report to me. So I have a head of planning services – director of planning services, I have a director of economic development and long-range planning, I have a director of infrastructure services, I have a manager of right-of-way heritage and of the design, and then we have a business support group which is all of the back office supports that help all the different services.
Q: Do you feel this structure is, because it is relatively new, working, and I know you’ve only had 80 days on the job, but do you feel it’s working the way it’s supposed to?
A: Well the interesting thing is, coming in from the outside, I have no preconceived notion about how it would have worked before versus how it works now, I’m very focused on as a go-forward strategy – this is the structure we have, and we’re going to make it work. Any time you make a big change in an organization, it takes a while for things to settle down, but the team has responded quite well, and many of these people worked with each other in the past, it’s just really the reporting structures that have changed. We’re trying to improve our business processes, and have lean processes in as many places as possible, and that’s where the change will really happen, and that takes time.
Q: Reading that between the lines, it sounds like you want to control the bureaucracy, in terms of volume of it?
A: No, I think what I wanted to say is that, you have to calibrate the level of effort you put in to things versus the output, right? 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 our internal processes to get that to happen, and help the staff make that happen, if we can find ways to make our planning approvals processes work as smoothly as possible, those are all good things, right?
And, sometimes, it’s all the backup with stuff that no one sees, it comes into the way we handle our approvals for pre-requirement, handle our internal processes for just even bringing information to me, and how I get prepared for council. So a lot of it is stuff that people don’t see. We’re working on this on a bunch of different levels, just trying to make sure we’re putting the effort to front line services as much as possible.
Q: Do you have any targets or goals that you want to achieve that you could share?
A: In each of the areas that I have, the economic development and long-range planning, the city already has what’s called a partnership strategy which talks about how we work with different groups, like 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 our five broad areas within that. So it’s not a dramatic change, but it’s a bit more of a focusing of the camera on this one, and that’s what we’re going to be doing with the continuing partnership approach.
In planning approvals, the department’s been doing a lot of very good work in the last couple of years that I want to continue, which is – we’re looking at streamlining the steps in planning approvals processes and they’ve just completed a review of a subdivision process, and removed a number of steps where there was opportunity of improving. We’re going be doing a review of the site plan approval process in the next year, to find ways of streamlining that.
We’ve also just completed an infrastructure standards review, which both finds savings for us, in terms of long-term operations and maintenance of infrastructure, and also it saves in the construction of new homes, when our standards have been adjusted, and it addresses one other part of growth management problems that we’ve discovered is sort of the growth in the amount of land that infrastructure itself consumes.
We’ve been very successful in last five to 10 years in reducing the amount of land that new homes actually occupy, but infrastructure, to support that, is actually been growing, so by going at that issue, and I don’t take credit for this, my predecessor John Moser started this work, and it’s really coming to council in the next meeting, where we’re bringing forward our new infrastructure standards, and that’s an area where we’re going to do continuous improvement. Because, if infrastructure could occupy less space, then we will save the amount of land that we need for the accomodation of growth.
Q: Do you want to give me some examples of changes that will happen?
A: For example, just the number of access points into underground utilities – we have a standard and we spread out the access points a little bit. We’re looking at new developments – the cycling tracks, and multi-use pathways, rather than build them on the roadbed to the standards of road construction for heavy vehicles and being built in the boulevard, to a lower standard of asphalt and base, because you’re not carrying as heavy vehicles, you don’t need to double in that much and that has a very substantial cost savings in the construction and the communities. We’re also look 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. There’s a detailed report on that available.
Q: Yeah, I can look it up. Could you tell me, if you could look at the integration of the three areas, or five areas, that is four policy areas and one area to administer and run the back office as you called it. Are you seeing places of integration that weren’t there before, and what would those be?
A: I think you’ve got to step up to a higher level. When Steve Kanellakos came in to the city manager, he and, this part of the reorganization structure, he keeps reinforcing: ‘We are one city, we are one team’. And it doesn’t matter how we’re organized, even within our own department, we have to be a one team with all of the different departments, so we work regularly with transportation, we work with community social services, we’ve been working with community protective services a lot lately through the emergency management, we’ve been dealing with the flood. We work every day with these other departments, so let’s start with that, that we’re one city and one team. Within our own department there are high degree of synergies because of policy influences day-to-day operations, there has to be a feedback to policy, and we’re doing development improvements, building new infrastructure, data has to be operated and mandated. So, we work in close relationships with each other, and I think this is a good group to put together, I think it’s natural. We like to say we’re in the city-building business, and that’s why all these different groups are put together.
Q: Do you have an idea, let’s put it from a builder, developer or even a contractor’s perspective, how this will result in changes, in terms of improving times, and is there a new target for, or changes that are coming on the way, and I’d say in the cycle of the approval of cost and the standards for that?
A: For example in the subdivision approvals process, we’ve done a lot of work with the development community to look at the, again, the infrastructure standards, we’ve also looked at the number of conditions of approval we typically do, and we’ve substantially reduced the number of conditions of approval, of draft approval, of the subdivision, and I think there’s even room to go further on that in time, but we’re going 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 each condition, and we have to process and clear that condition. Now if we could reduce that number down to 25 per cent, then that’s less work for the development community, it’s less work for us on the taxpayers’ behalf, responding to it. So if we can be more refined, and more precise, we’re adding value, and that translates to the savings on the cost of a new home.
In the circulation process, it’s much more complicated, in a lot of situations there are a lot of external agencies, so if we can automate – we’ve just switched, for example, to circulating development applications to commenting agencies – electronically. We no longer have people preparing pounds of paper, we are now moving to a more electronic system. That will save time, and it’s a better use of technology we already have.
I think our goal will always be a continuous improvement process, and we’ll keep looking for new ways. Ultimately, we’ll look at new software. We have a great software on GO Ottawa, where the public can get information on development, we’re looking to enhance that over time, there’s data that’s not on it, for example heritage data is not fully on that right now, people are interested in seeing more of that, we will be getting that added, and there will be more and more information available through that tool. I think it’s a successful tool, but we can continue to add to it.
Q: Can you say that the area that you perceive now, would benefit from the greatest improvement?
A: I’m not going to answer that question, to be frank. My predecessor John Moser has done a very good job in the different groups. I think every one of them have incredible strengths. Like any planning organization, we have to be the forward-thinking group, we have to always look at this opportunity, we have to interact with directly with tax payers, and the community associations, and the development community. We’re very much a front-line service. We have room to improve in our handling of information.
I have a goal that when we rewrite new policies, we’re going write much more precise, shorter documents. I’ve used the expression “we want to write less, and mean more,” in that we want more clarity in what we’re doing. And certainly in terms of our various approvals processes – if we can find ways of using technology to make the processes work faster and still have our appropriate controls, that will work really well too.
So if we could take elements of the financial approvals process and infrastructure projects, and automate them further, that will save time in the system. Invoice payments to contractors – there’s room for improvement through technology in that, there’s room for improvement in the way we write policy, there’s room for improvement in the number of steps we use in processes and there’s rooms for just our business processes. Finally, I think we’ll try to modernize our approaches to public engagement and consultation. We just tried out a new process with the Chateau Laurier on an online consultation. I think we’re quite happy with the amount it was used and we’re going to be looking for new processes like that as well.
Q: One of your areas of responsibility is dealing with other levels of government. I may be stepping into areas of policy which the city council needs to deal with, but I’ll let you defer those if you want. So there’s two level of government that we can talk about, mostly provincial, and one which you’re familiar from recent experience with – federal. Provincially, the thing that I think most directly affects your department will be the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) situation, because as you know developments sometimes run off the rails. Sometimes the city council would veto the opinions of your department, and that’s when these things have tended to find their way over to the OMB. And the second situation could be just the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) factor where community groups and associations just don’t want development in their area, because no one wants development that takes away a nice little park which clearly wasn’t a park. What are your thoughts about the changes to the, what is actually the end of the OMB and the replacement of with new appeal system?
A: The devil’s going be in the detail. It’s very early to comment a lot on this. But I think, just philosophically, anything that leads to more local decision-making is fundamentally better. I think Council is elected to make decisions, and if as many of the planning issues as possible can be dealt with locally, and the local planning appeals for the tribunals to leave to a narrower scope where they test whether we are following our own policy or following provincial policy, I think that’s an improvement.
I think that will make the process simpler, will make it easier, and will give more certainty about how long processes will ultimately take. I support leaving decision-making much more to our local council. There are lots of details in this legislation, and I don’t know how it’s going to play out.
It often takes two to three years really to see changes start to take effect, because there’s legislation to pass, there are regulations to pass, and appointments to tribunals and the like will have to happen, so I’m not sure how quickly this will happen, but it’s on the right track. It will deliver more confidence in the way that decisions are made, and I have great respect for many people on the OMB, who’ve done very meaningful work around this province, and have worked around this province. But the truth is, the more the decisions are made locally, that is better.
Q: Well the issue that troubles the development industry, presumably, is when the (project) owners, the founders, the planners agree on the project, and it’s clearly complying to the rules, and everything, and the planning department under your predecessor would’ve said ‘Yes, we approve this, we think it’s appropriate, it fits the city’s official plan, it’s in the guidelines, and it meets the intensification requirements’, all that sort off stuff, and goes to city council and then the uproar from the neighbours occurs when they say: ‘We don’t want those high rises near our single family homes’, or whatever issues they’re concerned about, and the councillors, knowing where the votes are coming from, say ‘No’. Those have been some of the types of cases that found their way to OMB.
A: It’s interesting, because people do say that, but if you look at the statistics, and if you ask media relations for reports that had actually asked for the statistics on how many board appeals we’ve had, and how much the city has spent on OMB appeals, then the numbers have been coming down. We’ve been doing a lot of work locally.
My predecessor John (Moser), the chair of planning committee (Jan Harder), members of Council, they have been working very closely trying to not leave the OMB as the last resort decision, they have tried to work through these issues. And yes there are perhaps some high profile cases that have gone, but actually OMB’s appeal numbers have been going down. And we have statistics that you can get, as we’ve compiled that.
Ultimately, what the province is saying is – if a development proposal meets the intent of the official plan, meets the intent of provincial policy, and if it’s a streamlined process of providing information, with the public getting professional advice from the (new appeal tribunal’s) support system, this might actually speed things up. But it will only speed things if the province properly resources the system. That’s my concern, and I have expressed that concern in the past. A properly resourced system at the provincial side, to make this work, that will have to happen.
Q: I guess it’s not your mandate to know how much resources are needed for that?
A: No. As I’ve said, when I was in the private sector, and I was in a consultation session with the province on this, I raised this issue. In the past, one of my colleagues was a former OMB member, when I was private sector, and I have known others, and there are some interesting articles and books that have been written, that really look at the resourcing question as well.
You need to have well trained board members, or appeal to tribunal members, you need to have staff support, and you need to have the file management support, so that the hearings aren’t scheduled a year after the appeal’s been made, and that’s important. Every public agency has been under enormous pressure in the last number of years, but I think if the province wants this system to succeed, they are going to have to focus on that issue.
Q: Let’s go to federal, and of course you’ve had a significant responsibility in NCC, and the LeBreton Flats, which I assume is probably one of the biggest files out there. From this point it sounds like obvious journalistic observation that you’re probably extremely well qualified to represent this city’s interest on this file, because you presumably know quite well what’s going on on the other side, or did, and you have some relationships presumably still over there. Where do you see the dynamic of the relationship between the city and the NCC and the projects such as LeBreton?
A: Let’s cast back a little bit in time, so in 2014, the NCC had a significant reorganization. The new team that was brought in, and I was part of that. There’s been a lot of effort invested to work with the city on a number of different levels. Not everything’s just in my shop, there’s a lot of day-to-day effort that goes into relationships between staff who maintain parks and roads, and all those sorts of things. I think there has been considerable effort, and part of the reason I think I was hired at the NCC was my familiarity with the city.
So we did a lot of work to try to build systems and relationships, and John Moser and I had a really good working relationship, and I developed a good working relationship with (former deputy city manager) Nancy Schepers who was another one of my predecessors, when I was in the NCC. And I think that the pattern we created will continue for sure.
Dan Champagne, who works for the NCC now, and the other executive team at the NCC, I have a good relationship with them. I also had the chance to work with people in Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), who were the other biggest landlord on the federal level in Ottawa. I think it’s an asset to know these people, and work with them on other issues, but I’m not the only one in the city, not everything relies on what I do. My colleagues, we all deal with the federal government on a fairly routine basis.
I think from the city’s team perspective, we know we have to work with them. They have a different mandates than we do, we have to just understand their mandates, and find ways to work with them. For me, it’s about understanding their point of view that will help.
Q: If you could look a year ahead, or, you’re a senior manager so I can’t even put you further – three to five years ahead – where do you see this department and you, how do you see it changing, and how do you see it at the same changing because of it? Or, maybe staying the same, it could be?
A: No, I think I’m not really going talk about organizational arrangement other than, because you learn as you go on this, and you adjust and find issues on organizational arrangements, but I think there are some significant things.
We will have a new official plan, or a major update to the existing official plan. We will have a new transportation masterplan, we will have a new infrastructure masterplan. So all of these city-building documents are up for refresh in the city council. I think that’s going be a really significant exercise. And, what I hope in doing this, is building on work that was done last time.
We really want to be the most livable city in North America. We’ll never be the largest city, we’ll never be New York City, we’re not going to be Toronto. But people live here because they want to live here. This is a very, very livable city. It’s a beautiful environment, it’s a very stable economy, there are great opportunities, it’s an incredibly well educated city. These are assets we have, and I think what people want to know is we’ll continue to be a highly livable city as we get bigger, and will become more dynamic and interesting, as with that critical mass of population we’re developing goes.
And the major investments, and things like LRT, once it opens into operation, things will really start to change. Things we’ve been talking about from a planning perspective – we’ll actually start seeing it happening. So I think in the next three to five years, seeing LRT open – phase one. Seein phase 2 constructed. Seeing the transit-oriented development we’ve been planning really starting to take shape. The growth in our economic activity and sectors – the high-tech sector, the education, the health-care sectors, are all growth industries in this region, and seeing what they do will bring it.
Investing in public spaces is important. We just opened the improvement to the George St. plaza at the Byward Market. We’ve just changed the governance, (council just approved the change on the governance model for the Byward Market to put it to municipal services corporation, which is a bit more nimble an organization, which will have more flexibility than running it in-house at the city).
All of these things just add up – vibrancy in public spaces, substantial change in the way people move around the city, more compact communities, more walkability, we’re investing in cycling infrastructure. These are all the things that we’re just on the edge of seeing, and more of this will be live in action in five years. And as I’ve said, we’re going now have a new official plan, new transportation modes, which will allow us a better look to the next wave of what happens after that.
Q: Just to touch on that, that whole transportation-oriented development intensification. I’ve spent many years with home builders, and it’s a constant issue of pressure. The argument is ‘Yes, we’re fine to go along with the concept of intensification, but we keep running up against these, well, NIMBYs.’ And politically, it’s an easy call to support intensification and at the same time as there are restraints on development because it just increases the property value of the rate payers, who are, of course, never unhappy to see their property rise in value. Do you see any solutions to these issues?
A: Well, when Official Plan Amendment 150 was adopted, we laid out our transit-oriented development strategy in the city, and that was back a couple of years ago, and it’s still under appeal. Once it actually takes effect, the city has already given it’s opinion on the form of development in and around transit stations, and that official plan document is quite important, but it’s not yet in effect.
This is entirely consistent with provincial policy, and provincial policy is getting clearer all the time, that in and around transit stations there’s an expectation of more transit-oriented development because that provides better transit ridership, it’s more environmentally sustainable, more appropriate form of development, and it also provides a variety of housing types. Because not everybody will, for their entire life-span live in single family dwellings.
Aging populations, people before they have families, perhaps might want higher density formats, we will start seeing families living in high densities in Ottawa, more than we do now, certainly other cities are already seeing that. That will happen. And so for us, we’re just in that period before the policy regime is clear, just because of where we’re at on this appeal.
And with the province’s announced OMB reforms, and the potential, what they see very clearly around transit stations is the provincial policy will support intensification and there may be limits to appeals for lands near transit stations on LRT lines and subway lines in other cities. I think the policy is clear, where it’s going. A bit more time, and this is going to work better.
Now, we do have local planning issues, we do have some very old plans where we haven’t planned transitions as much as we could, and I think, when the new official plan comes along, we’ll get back at that issue about having to address some of those very, very old plans. We have secondary plans that date to the 1990s, pre-amalgamation, we have community design plans that are early post-amalgamation that didn’t contemplate an LRT line, so we have some catch up to do on the policy side.
Q: I’m almost out, because you’ve covered a lot of ground here. Is there anything I missed, though? Anything on your talking notes that you thought you might want raise.
A: Well, I think one of the things I get asked a lot about, which is the implications of big changes to the economy more broadly, that might affect the way we are planning in the city, and things like technology, and 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. And probably the answer to you is that with our next wave of plans, we won’t know the answer to that question, or would have to anticipate the scenarios that might play out with each of those three big themes.
So demographic change, technology, and change in retail, when it’s here. And I think we’re going to have to do some effort on our side to understand where the workforce in the future will be, and what the physical form of the workforce will be. It’s interesting, what we’re seeing more and more on the economic development planning side is major employers want to locate in very vibrant mixed-use areas, which is actually a change over what we would have said 15 years ago. And I think that will have a big impact on our thinking when we get into the new round of planning.
Q: Yeah, these are amazing issues too. The whole concept of, theoretically with the whole concept of autonomous vehicles, fewer vehicles and they’ll be running more consistently presumably on electrical model, and that whole concept of parking changes, doesn’t it? The concept of you’re not responsible for the taxi commission probably, but that’s certainly an area that’s going go through some pretty heavy changes. So you almost have to think about the way the city’s set up, or thing that aren’t quite here yet?
A: Well, planning isn’t perfect. We can’t anticipate every single issue. I think what we need to do is design strategies from an economic development planning and infrastructure perspective that might be adaptable to different things playing out over time. So there’s almost different scenarios that we need to anticipate and insure that we’re not stuck on some kind of one approach that wouldn’t adapt, should things that are beyond our control change.
And these are all forces that are beyond our control, because the experts I talk about, on each of these three areas, even they say that there are multiple ways this will play out, autonomous vehicles, demographic shifts, and change in retail trade, and employment. So, I don’t have the answer yet, but I think when we get into next round of our planning, we’re going have to plan for a nimbleness in the planning to do with different scenarios as they come.
Q: Alright, thank you!
A: It was a pleasure.


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