Steve Willis’ Attempt to Makeover Ottawa Part 1 of 2

By Bruce Firestone | Architecture

Oct 01
[A version of this article first appeared in Ottawa Business Journal,] [Read part 2 here,]

I meet with Steve Willis in his suite of offices at Ottawa city hall after everyone else’s workday seems to be over, except his.

He’s the new general manager of planning, infrastructure & economic development, a crucial 700-person department in a 16,000+ FTE (full time equivalent, or what you and I would call “jobs”) organization.

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 Canada’s Capital City’s future—its economic prospects, its culture, and brand.

He’ll have more influence, one way or another, on Ottawa’s ability to attract and retain the city’s most important resource—its entrepreneurs and kids—than anyone else including new and old resident tech titans.

Born in Ottawa in the 1960s, Mr. Willis grew up in a Bob Campeau-built home and he is just old enough to remember the awful planning decision to rip out Ottawa’s streetcars 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.

Steve also recalls being forced to look for a job outside the city (during a 20-year period in his life) because of 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 most futurists see megacities (those over ten million) as being 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 M.PL. (master of planning, urban and regional planning) following a stint at University of Toronto where he received a Bachelor of Arts 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’ name from his time spent at the NCC, where, amongst other matters, he guided the competition between the Ottawa Senators’ RendezVous LeBreton bid and that of DevCore.

Steve says, “I was so glad we had a competition and that there was more than one bidder. It made everyone work harder, and while both bids were well put together, what made RendezVous’ bid standout was that it is a superb piece of urban infill even without a new arena.”

Then he hastens to add, “Of course, I hope it all comes together including a new Sens building there.”

Modest and talented, Steve is a towering 6’5”. He slouches to make other (shall we say height-challenged) people (like me at 5’10”) more comfortable. He’s a good listener and he parses his answers carefully so as to not only make himself clear in an oracular kind of way but also so as not to give offense either to anyone present or someone who might someday learn of his pronouncements via, for example, a future OBJ column.

I ask Steve what his top priority is and he answers right away, “I want Ottawa to be the most livable midsize North American city.”

“What does that actually mean?” I ask him.

“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 that Steve returns to over and over again, and is consistent with my view that nothing is sustainable unless it’s also 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.

Steve adds, “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. One of my department’s other strategic priorities is to focus on lean process design.”

When I ask him for further explanation of the latter, he clarifies 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 mentions he would like to address any overlap between what Invest Ottawa does and what economic development does under his authority.

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

It remains to be seen what the full implications of his on-going review of departmental activities will be.

But it’s a good lead-in to my next question.

I quote a Le Droit article by Mathieu Bélanger (November 29th, 2016), which referred to a CFIB study that showed Gatineau (49th best) beating out Ottawa (82nd best) in terms of best business cities in Canada.

Monsieur Bélanger writes (translated from French):

The City of Ottawa is worse off than Gatineau with an 82nd position in the 121 rankings. This is down from 2015, when Ottawa was 76th. The perception of the City of Ottawa’s municipal regulations has deteriorated in 2016. Last year, 60% of respondents felt that the City of Ottawa’s regulations were a barrier to business. There are now 70% thinking the same thing this year.

“I am not familiar with that study,” Steve says. “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 commonsense to a city with a huge and widely feared group of apparatchiks.

I tell Mr. Willis I am not surprised at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business findings. I hear all the time from developers, homeowners, and entrepreneurs that they are truly frightened to tangle with city employees about anything.

“Steve, what is the one thing that clients hate hearing most from the city?”

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

“We have concerns,” I say.

We both laugh.

I tell 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, 2-bedroom flat on the ground floor.

Their plan? To divide the big unit that rents for about $1,400 a month into 2, 1-bedroom units that’ll rent for around $850 each. They have to add a wall, one micro kitchen and one w/c (water closet, umm, bathroom) to make this happen.

Total cost for renovations? Approximately $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 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 petty obtuseness, she said, “Look, Little Italy has a heritage overlay so Dom’ll 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’ll cost?” Dom asked ever so micely (a combination of “like a mouse” and “nicely.”)

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

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.

Steve reacts 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 commonsense.”


This is what the former city of Nepean under planning guru Bill Leathem (that is, when Ottawa had a city of Nepean before forced amalgamation killed diversity in this region) used to do—they would take it upon themselves, at their city’s own cost, to bring these kinds of travesties to planning committee and then to council to create exemptions when warranted.

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

[End part 1]

[Read part 2 here,]

Bruce M Firestone, PhD, Ottawa Senators founder, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker, Real Estate Investment and Business coach. Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce or email him at

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Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.