They say timing is everything. Assuming that old adage were true, the best thing to have done during the economic storm of the early 1990s was to just sit tight and wait it out.
Or not. Ted Fobert chose then to leave his comfy management-level position with the City of Ottawa. Likewise, friend and fellow urban planner Robert Tennant was doing well working for the private sector when he also made his planned exit.
Together, they started an urban planning consultancy firm called FoTenn, renting office space out of a small building that has since been replaced by a Shoppers Drug Mart at the corner of Bank and Sunnyside.
“Our first couple of years in the business were pretty tough,” acknowledges Fobert, 65, while speaking alongside Tennant, 68, in the boardroom of Fotenn Planning + Design. “We had pretty limited opportunities. The governments weren’t spending money. The private sector was quiet. The city didn’t really bounce back until ’94 or ’95.”
He wasn’t yet regretting his career move but “I think my wife was,” he jokes (kind of).
From those humble beginnings in early 1992, FoTenn has grown to become the top firm of its kind in the region and one of the largest in the province. Its award-winning expertise includes site planning, land usage, policy development, urban design and landscape architecture.
Today, the company has a staff of more than 30 people and is involved in almost every new development that shapes our city, from the transformation of Richmond Road and Lansdowne Park to the expansion of Barrhaven South and the planned redevelopment of LeBreton Flats.
For developers, FoTenn is the go-to firm for steering complex urban projects through the city’s approval process and Ontario Municipal Board hearings.
“When we started, we had no idea what size we might be,” says Tennant while recalling how the company managed to organically grow and diversify as more and more clients hired it and new business ideas and opportunities proved successful. “I’m quite proud of what we were able to do.”
On the public sector side, FoTenn’s work includes its extensive community planning for the Inuit and First Nations living in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Quebec.
FoTenn has also expanded geographically, with offices in Kingston and Toronto. In 2000, it bought and moved into its 223 McLeod St. building, which is full of beautiful artwork belonging to Tennant and Fobert (Tennant is an avid art collector).
The company founders were recently fêted at a large reception attended by the likes of Mayor Jim Watson, Coun. Jan Harder, chair of the city’s planning committee, and Russ Mills, former chair of the National Capital Commission.
Fobert and Tennant are in the process of retiring from FoTenn and passing the business along to its directors, Brian Casagrande, Michael Stott, Miguel Tremblay and Margo Watson.
They’re not riding off into the sunset, though. The two are also partners in another venture, a tour boat business in the Thousand Islands called Rockport Cruises.
FoTenn’s greatest accomplishment remains its biggest challenge: helping cities move forward by getting projects approved in the face of community resistance.
Large supermarkets and taller buildings can create mobs of angry neighbours, leading to wild accusations, name-calling and even – on one occasion – the slashing of car tires.
“Planners are change agents,” Fobert says. “That’s our primary role. We accept a vision that has been stated by a municipality, that becomes in the public interest. It’s not the 20 to 30 people complaining at public meetings who are in the public interest.”
The intensification of Westboro’s Richmond Road “is a really good example of the evolution of a street that resulted in a battle against almost every particular development along there,” he adds.
“People don’t remember how depressed Richmond Road was. There were no highrises, no life on the street. I can remember meetings where people would say, ‘Where am I going to park if you put all this development on Richmond Road?’ Well, guess what – that’s a healthy sign if you’re looking for parking.
“Looking back on the projects, you realize ... they’ve strengthened the community, not deteriorated the community.”
“Looking back on the projects, you realize they were, in fact, good projects, and that they’ve strengthened the community, not deteriorated the community,” says Fobert. “In retrospect, it’s good development, it makes sense, it’s supporting our infrastructure, it’s supporting the Transitway, it’s doing all the things that it was intended to do.
“You have to have a conviction that what you’re doing is in the public interest. The public doesn’t see the developments that we’ve turned away, that we didn’t feel were in the public interest.”
Years ago, for example, FoTenn was hired to handle a rezoning application for a proposed bingo hall and Chinese grocery store in Westboro.
“We thought we’d hit pay dirt,” recalls Tennant. “But we looked at each other after having researched it and decided this wasn’t good for the community. We went to the client and said, ‘We don’t think you should do this.’ The client looked at us and said, ‘Thank you very much.’
“The next day the client called to say, ‘I appreciate your honesty. I have three other properties I’d like you to work on.’ Indeed, it was an early lesson on helping people do better things.”
That Westboro property, by the way, is now home to Mountain Equipment Co-op, arguably the best-ever addition to the ’hood.
Five things to know about Robert Tennant and Ted Fobert
- Tennant traces his love of urban planning and
designback to a childhood spent visiting European cities. His dad had a senior position with Air Canada that allowed the family to travel extensively. His post-secondary education includes a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Toronto. Fobertcredits his interest in urban planning to a high school geography teacher in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill. The teacher loved talking about cities. “I didn’t really understand anything about urban planning or know that there was such a profession, but when I got to university and saw there was a program, that’s what I was drawn to.”
- Both men belong to the highly regarded Royal Ottawa Golf Club, and Tennant is even a former club president and club champion. He comes from a long line of distinguished golfers and is an invited member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, one of the oldest and most prestigious golf clubs in the world.
- If you’ve ever belonged to the Y, you may recognize
Fobertfrom his years of teaching a popular fitness class there. He was also on the board of directors for the YMCA-YWCA National Capital Region.
- Tennant’s community involvement has included the Writers’ Trust of Canada, Citizen Advocacy of Ottawa and being on the boards of the National Capital Commission and the National Arts Centre’s new building committee.