Steve Willis’ Attempt to Makeover Ottawa Part 1 of 2

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Oct 01
[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

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

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

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

“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

[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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About the Author

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