Op-ed: Meet Steve Willis, City Hall’s most important person

OBJ columnist Bruce Firestone recently sat down with the man he believes will have a bigger impact on the city’s future growth than anyone else: Ottawa’s new GM of planning and economic development Steve Willis
Stephen Willis
Stephen Willis is the City of Ottawa's head of planning and economic development. Photo provided.

This is the first of a two-part series.

I met with Steve Willis in his office at City Hall after everyone else’s workday seemed to be over except his. 

He’s the City of Ottawa’s new general manager of planning, infrastructure and economic development, a crucial 700-person department in a 16,000-employee organization. 

In fact, he’s arguably the most important person not only working for the city but in all of Ottawa – at least in terms of his impact on the capital’s future economic prospects, its culture and brand.

He’ll have more influence, directly and indirectly, on Ottawa’s ability to attract and retain the city’s most important resources – its entrepreneurs and young people – than anyone else, including tech titans such as Terry Matthews. 

Born in Ottawa in the 1960s, Mr. Willis is just old enough to remember the awful planning decision to rip out the city’s streetcars at the end of that decade and replace them with noisy, smelly, lumbering diesel buses that everyone hates and can’t wait to see replaced or, at a minimum, augmented by light rail. 

He also recalls being forced to look for a job outside the city earlier in his life because of a lack of opportunities in his hometown, a condition he would prefer not to see repeated. Especially if a midsize city like Ottawa hopes to compete and win in a tough global environment where many futurists see a world in which megacities – those with a population of more than 10 million – will be unstoppable engines of growth, leaving smaller centres in their dust. And Canada doesn’t have even one of those. 

Mr. Willis graduated from Queen’s University in 1992 with a master’s degree in planning, urban and regional planning. Before that, he studied at the University of Toronto, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science and economic history. He’s going to need all the political savvy he can muster to deal with what he acknowledges is his direct boss and final decider – Ottawa city council. 

You may also recognize Mr. Willis’s name from his time at the NCC, where, among other things, he guided the competition between the Ottawa Senators’ RendezVous LeBreton bid and DevCore’s proposal to redevelop LeBreton Flats. 

A towering figure at six feet five inches, he slouches to make other, shall we say, height-challenged people more comfortable. He’s a good listener, and he parses his answers carefully so as to not only make himself clear but also so as not to give offence to either anyone present or someone who might someday learn of his pronouncements via, for example, a newspaper column.

I asked Mr. Willis what his top priority is. He answered right away: “I want Ottawa to be the most livable midsize North American city.”
So what does that actually mean?

“That Ottawa is a safe, sustainable and welcoming place along with three plentiful things – jobs, jobs, jobs, especially for our children.”
It’s a theme he returned to over and over again in our interview, and it’s consistent with my view that nothing is sustainable unless it’s economically sustainable. Just look at Ontario’s costly FIT (feed-in-tariff) clean energy program – an unsustainable fiasco, especially for consumers and industry. But I digress.

“Look, we need good balance in our local economy; economic sustainability cannot be taken for granted,” he continued. “The key is attracting new talent and retaining existing talent. One of my department’s other strategic priorities is to focus on lean process design.”

Common-sense approach

When I asked him to further explain the concept of “lean process design,” he clarified it this way: “It’s like a business process review – we want to knock out steps in things like subdivision applications, site plans and engineering reviews. You know, find efficiencies … shorten up and simplify city processes.”

He also mentioned he would like to address any overlap between what Invest Ottawa – the city’s arm’s-length economic development agency – does and what his department is responsible for.

“Invest Ottawa is more of a client-facing operation; we’re more of a policy shop,” Mr. Willis said.

It remains to be seen what the full implications of his ongoing review of departmental activities will be. But it was a good lead-in to my next topic.

In a 2016 study commissioned by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Ottawa ranked 82nd out of 121 cities for business-friendly policies, well below neighbouring Gatineau’s position at No. 49. Seventy per cent of Ottawa respondents felt the city’s regulations were a barrier to business, up from 60 per cent the year before.

“I am not familiar with that study,” Mr. Willis said. “But one of the things we are doing is asking city council for more delegated authority for me and especially for our four area managers to introduce more flexibility and pragmatism into our processes.”

This sounds like bureaucratese, but it isn’t. It’s a crucial new stance, one that attempts to reintroduce common sense to a city with a huge and widely feared group of apparatchiks.

I told Mr. Willis I’m not surprised at the study’s findings. I hear all the time from developers, homeowners and entrepreneurs that they are truly frightened to tangle with city employees about anything. 

I asked him what clients hate hearing most from the city.

Maybe he’s thinking of Ronald Reagan’s nine most-feared words in the English language, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” but he was too polite to say anything, so he just shrugged.

“We have concerns,” I said. We both laughed.

“Look, we need good balance in our local economy; economic sustainability cannot be taken for granted. The key is attracting new talent and retaining existing talent.”

I then told him a story about a client of mine who came to visit a young Ottawa planner last year. 

Dom (not his real name) and his wife own a triplex in Little Italy. They have a big, two-bedroom flat on the ground floor. 

Their plan? To divide the big unit that rents for about $1,400 a month into a pair of one-bedroom units that’ll rent for around $850 each. They have to add a wall, one micro-kitchen and one bathroom to make this happen. 

Total cost for renovations? About $15,000, which Dom and his dad planned to carry out as soon as they could get a building permit. 

The young planner, referring to her zoning code (a manual the size and heft of Oregon), said, “Well, first you’ll need to prepare and file a site plan. The Planning Act suggests it’ll take six months to complete it, but you’d better budget for a year. Then you’ll also need a traffic study and a streetscape heritage overlay study and ...”

“Wait, hold on a sec,” I interrupted her. “I’ve never heard of a streetscape heritage overlay study. What is that?”

“Well, it’s sometimes called a Cultural Heritage Impact Statement,” she answered unhelpfully.

“Huh?” both Dom and I said at the same time.

Showing some frustration at our obtuseness, she said, “Look, Little Italy has a heritage overlay, so Dom will need to hire a consultant to make sure his renovation project is consistent with it.”

“But Dom and his dad won’t be making any changes to the outside of their building, none. That building already has two separate doors, err, entrances,” I replied.

“Sorry, it’s still a required study,” she answered sternly.

“Ah, hmm, excuse me, but do you know how much all of this will cost?” Dom asked.

$34,000 expense

“Well, with all studies and fees about … uh, let me see, yeah, right, approximately $34,000!” she answered.

Needless to say, Dom didn’t get his building permit, he and his spouse didn’t receive any extra income from their one and only asset, and Little Italy didn’t get another affordable rental unit, a loss for the city of Ottawa. 

Mr. Willis reacted to my retelling of this pitiful tale by saying, “That’s exactly why we want more delegated authority. This should have been kicked upstairs to one of our area managers to deal with using common sense.”

Bravo. 

This is what the former city of Nepean under planning guru Bill Leathem used to do – take it upon itself, at the city’s own cost, to bring these kinds of travesties to planning committee and council to create exemptions when warranted. 

Mr. Leathem would never have concerned himself with “setting a precedent” as long it was a good one.

Next issue, Mr. Firestone and Mr. Willis will discuss how city planning has changed in the digital world.