New chief planner has spent his whole career building Toronto
Gregg Lintern knows his outlook seems sunny, but he sees endless opportunity in the way we build, and think, about a future city.
March 30, 2018
“Oh, little Ginny.”
Planning the city for more than 30 years, along the way there have been some, call them, memorable moments for Gregg Lintern.
Ginny, of course, was not a resident, but a theoretical little girl of former deputy mayor Doug Holyday’s imagination. She became a touchstone in a debate after Holyday espoused the belief that children couldn’t safely live downtown. Where would Ginny play? Holyday wondered aloud on the floor of council in 2012. On King St.?
Lintern, raised in Rexdale and like Holyday a child of the Etobicoke suburbs, was on hand that day as acting chief planner to field the water-cooler comments.
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Having a mixed-use community downtown “just makes for a healthier city,” Lintern said simply.
He remembers with a laugh at a coffee shop near city hall on the day it’s announced he will take over the top job as chief planner.
Today, the King and John Sts. community at the centre of the debate in 2012 is part of one of the fastest-growing hubs anywhere in the city as condos continue to rise in what was once a primarily industrial area.
And the city, Lintern notes, thankfully had the foresight to plan for vertical communities in order to accommodate the kind of intense density in the core and elsewhere. Ginny and the kids are alright.
As the city continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, with residents feeling the squeeze on the subway and from housing prices, Lintern takes over at a time of many challenges.
He also sees much opportunity.
He tells a story about standing on Front St. when it was first built in front of Union Station.
“I went down there and I just,” he pauses. “You know, I didn’t cry, but I thought, wow, this feels so grown up.”
“It reminded me about how adaptable we are.” He knows this sounds very “sunny” but look. he says, at St. Lawrence Market, Regent Park and even Scarborough Town Centre. The city has a history of adaptation.
A recent trip to Tokyo was inspirational. He recalls five stations the likes of Toronto’s Union Station. He uses the term a “feast of urbanity” casually.
Though nowhere near the same scale, Toronto — and now Lintern — has the task of expanding its transit network into 2031.
“I’m still ramping up on the transit file,” Lintern says of the job he’s been doing on an interim basis since Jennifer Keesmaat departed in September. Transit is at the top of his priority list. As for council’s priorities, he knows council has long debated specific projects — from a Scarborough subway extension projected to run trains that are 80 per cent empty at rush hour to a much-needed relief line subway through the city’s spine.
“Honestly, they’re all priorities,” he said of the plan approved by council.
“My focus on Scarborough today has been less around the controversy of whether there’s a Scarborough subway,” he says, but on maximizing the potential to remake that city centre that has dragged behind other hot spots targeted for growth. Only one office tower of significant scale has been built in many years, he notes. A planning review is already underway.
Lintern points out the goals are similar to the discussion that stalled this past week about remaking North York Centre. After hours of debate at council, a decision to defer was made with councillors not seeing eye-to-eye about removing car lanes on Yonge St. to make way for cyclists and other street improvements.
The 56-year-old married father has spent his entire career planning the city. Starting in Etobicoke before amalgamation as a summer student, he never left. He would go on to work for the former city of Toronto. After amalgamation he went on to head the planning team in Etobicoke before returning downtown to city hall to be director of community planning for the Toronto and East York district. Today, he lives in High Park with his family.
That experience has given him a big-picture perspective on the ongoing urban-suburban tension that still exists in a unified Toronto.
He is conscious of not wanting to seem patronizing of the suburbs.
“I think it’s more about making a downtown idea work in those local contexts,” he says. Toronto’s population is expected to balloon — to 3.89 million people by 2041 — he notes. “We need those centres to carry some of the load for that development capacity that they provide . . . How are we going to land it on the ground that is beneficial for people, for livability, for healthy urban environments?”
It means reducing reliance on cars and increasing the use of cycling and walking to get around in those centres, he says.
“We’re not building more roads and we cannot rely on the automobile as a 21st century transportation solution . . . Weaning ourselves off of that philosophy is a long journey for the city of Toronto — a long, winding road.”
Can council, which has in recent years both shouted about a war on cars and approved new bike lanes on major streets, be swayed?
He dodges that, saying council is a reflection of the values of Torontonians. The mayor is one vote and the only vote that represents that of the whole city, he says. While Keesmaat at times came to public blows with council members, Lintern is more subdued. He says the role of staff is to provide strong, independent advice. What council does with it, is their prerogative.
On the values of Torontonians, there is also room for change too, he says.
“It fascinates me that people would travel to another city to experience European lifestyles or something else and come back home and they must love it — ‘Oh, I walked to the patisseries,’ LRTs buzzing around you on green boulevards,” he says. “We’re adolescents flirting with adulthood.”
The city also has to create opportunities by providing equitable access to transit and building affordable housing, he said — another item on the list.
The city’s zoning bylaws need to become more straightforward, rules the city has been hesitant to change with a powerful Ontario Municipal Board still able to overturn city decisions on many planning matters. Reforms to that provincial tribunal are underway, but could take years to take shape.
Places like the Annex — which has more total units than ever, but the overall population in the protected neighbourhood has decreased by thousands — require “gentle intensification,” he says.
Other necessary tools like inclusionary zoning, he says, which mandates affordable units in new developments, are currently being ironed out at Queen’s Park.
“It’s within the better side of our soul. We’re capable of it.”
There’s a lot of things on Lintern’s list, he realizes. But he says he’s not scared of anything about the work ahead.
“I just have to expect the unexpected in this type of work,” he says. “I used to love riding the Wild Mouse with my daughter at the Ex and that’s often the way I think about my day — it’s disconcerting and exhilarating at the same time.”