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Quizzing Toronto’s Top Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, Over Dinner

Quizzing Toronto’s Top Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, Over Dinner

The Toronto Star’s Corey Mintz, along with some other city-focused journalists, sat down with Toronto’s Chief City Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, for her views on where the city is headed:

When the first course shows up, it’s barely talked about, the soup consumed as guests continue their rapid-fire conversation. But by the second and third courses, Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, is eager for an explanation of the food, for any diversion from the constant barrage of questions from city-minded writers Christopher Hume, Ivor Tossell and David Topping.

It’s pork belly, over spinach, with apples, mushrooms and brown butter, I tell her, offering brief respite. Having to actually chew provides occasional cover, as does her husband, Tom Freeman. But he can only do so much.

Having transitioned only last year from the private sector, she’s new to the spotlight of politics. Usually she slips in and out of interviews in about 15 minutes. Tonight, she’s seen the menu, knows she’s going to be here for several hours and, for the first two hours, nurses a glass of white wine, not allowing any space for me to pour a little more. She talks passionately about the city, all parts of it. But surrounded by vulturous reporters, the red light of a recorder frequently silences her.

“I don’t separate my personal and professional opinions,” she says, explaining her caution to avoid the partisan strife that derails much of our local government’s time.

“We like to package it neatly in terms of left and right,” says Keesmaat. “I don’t care where the good ideas are coming from. To me it’s about, what are the good ideas we need to bring forward in order to create a great city. And who are the players who are going to line up behind those ideas and advocate for them?”

Getting specific, she says she’d like to see more regulatory framework for development.

“And I’m not concerned with style. I’m concerned with quality and longevity. We’re going to be piloting two key areas in the city where we will employ the Development Permit System.”

Everyone else snaps to attention so I gather this must be important.

“The Development Permit System essentially is a way to truncate the approvals process,” she elaborates. “It blends together the rezoning, the official plan amendment and the site plan approvals process.”

Later I will have to look up half these terms.

“For example, imagine an area of the city is zoned and we put a boundary around it, not unlike we do in a heritage conservation district. We make that a development permit area and then a developer can come in and can develop within that built form envelope.”

I don’t mean to imply that she’s engaged in any linguistic obfuscation. Quite the opposite. She mostly avoids planner-speak, eschewing acronyms. She never says OMB, enunciating Ontario Municipal Board every time.

But to translate, this plan would create a time-saving framework that would declare, within a defined area, that developers can build something X feet high, if they devote Y amount of square footage to public space and X amount to art or a park, follow pedestrian and transit guidelines, etc. “So you don’t have to go through what is sometimes considered an onerous process, because the rules are already there and in place.” It would also cut out the case-by-case community consultation (aka NIMBY-mania). “The challenge, with Development Permit System, is that you have to do a significant level of due diligence to actually create that plan.”

Eventually she lets me pour another glass of wine, which she spends a good time holding, but rarely brings it to her lips. The message she’s keen to push is that she’d like to get things done, not just talk about them. She’s eager to engage the citizenry, as she’s done in a series of public discussions, but is hesitant to let populism trump reason.

“It’s almost like we’re afraid of our expertise,” she describes the hurdle of public consultation without public education. “I want people to understand what the constraints are and what our larger objectives are. I don’t want to just say, ‘Tell me what you think,’ and then get a bunch of uninformed opinions.”

“I think planners often miss the point,” Hume teases her. “Trying to control everything is the first mistake.”

Keesmaat cuts him short. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say planners do nothing and they control everything.”

Her eyes narrow for a moment, brow tensing. She is visibly annoyed with Hume, who won’t let up. “I’m deliberately giving Jennifer a hard time. I think that’s part of her job now, to deal with people like me, who are suspicious, skeptical and obnoxious.”

And it’s his job to be all those things.

“She was hoping for a reprieve,” says the mostly-quiet Freeman.

“There is no reprieve,” says Hume. “You’re on 24-7. That’s your fate now.”

Keesmaat unfurrows her brow.

“It is my fate. But … ” she takes a breath, composing herself. “Everywhere I go, it comes at me from all angles. I’m hoping that we can begin to create a culture in this city where we actually can line up those people who believe in pushing ideas forward and can work collaboratively. Because there are many people who are focused on tearing things down, on holding things back, on saying why things won’t work.”

By Corey Mintz/Toronto Star/March 18, 2013