In 2015, the National Capital Commission and the city were at a complete standoff over light rail. And then Steve Willis had an idea. The first phase of Ottawa’s multi-billion dollar transit project was still a beautiful ambition, without the stain of recent malfunctions. But the critical second phase, which would take the system closer to thousands of residents, was on the verge of catastrophe. The city wanted to run the trains on the parkway; the NCC flat-out refused.
“It was a hell of a mess,” remembers Bob Plamondon, who was then an NCC board member. “Neither side was going to bend. It was going to end very poorly.”
Then Willis spoke up. What if the trains ran underneath the road? They wouldn’t have to share the road with cars, and there would be no electric infrastructure marring the green space. It would eliminate the need for more costly forms of tunnelling, saving the project almost a billion dollars. Both sides jumped on the idea.
“We would not have phase two without Steve using his design sensibility and his approach to problem solving,” says Plamondon. “It was an incredible innovation. That’s Steve Willis.”
You’ve probably never heard of Steve Willis, who is now general manager of Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development for the city of Ottawa. And that bureaucratic title won’t help you understand the scope and significance of his responsibilities.
“It’s fascinating what crosses my desk on any given day, in any given week,” says Willis. He’s called on for development of the new Ottawa Hospital campus and the fledgling Adisoke library at LeBreton Flats, as well as the city’s master plan for climate change, assorted construction issues, and the mother of all municipal files: the official plan. “It’s really good if you have a short attention span,
like I do,” says Willis.
He may shift his focus quickly from file to file, but Willis is a critical player in the long, patient game of city planning. Any one of these files is important; put them all together, and it does nothing less than shape the future of the city.
Under different circumstances, Willis might have been writing this article instead of appearing in it. He was born in Ottawa in 1967 — an auspicious year for someone who would later be tasked with building and protecting Canada’s capital — and grew up as the youngest of four children to a stay-at-home mom and a father who was a draftsman with Transport Canada. “He could draw the longest, straightest freehand line of anybody I knew,” Willis says.
Willis attended Nepean High School and discovered a love of Peter C. Newman’s epic tales of industry, which fuelled an interest in business journalism. But a summer job at the city of Ottawa (“because it paid well”) changed everything. He was assigned to the heritage division and fell in love with planning. Willis now views his job as making Ottawa the most livable mid-sized city in North America. When he speaks before large and small groups, he enjoys asking if anyone has had a chance to move away and chose instead to stay in Ottawa. Inevitably, a bunch of hands go up. He uses it as a way to gauge whether he’s succeeding in his job.
Willis himself actually left for a while, moving to — gasp — Toronto, where he worked on a number of ambitious projects, including a massive redevelopment of the waterfront that is now taking shape and the city’s failed bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
That’s when Ottawa’s epic light-rail saga intersected with Willis’s life for the first of many occasions. The consulting firm for which Willis was working in Toronto was meant to work on the north-south commuter line introduced by former mayor Bob Chiarelli. The firm acquired a business in Ottawa and staffed up to do the work. But when new mayor Larry O’Brien scrapped the light-rail plan, the company was left with a team in Ottawa with nothing to do. Willis was tasked with creating a business plan for the office and moved his family back home, persuading his wife that the quality of life here was better.
After building the Ottawa branch to more than 200 people, Willis answered the phone one day to a call from a National Capital Commission recruiter. Willis figured he would never get the job, so he approached the interview as though he had nothing to lose. His bold advice was to make the NCC less about rules and plans and more about using its vast array of properties to build a capital that people would truly appreciate. “I didn’t hold back,” Willis says.
The frank and thoughtful presentation earned him the role of executive director of capital planning. In his two years at the NCC, Willis worked on such critical files as LeBreton Flats and light rail and won a lot of admirers for his cool and candid approach.
“The way he interacts with people is remarkable,” says architect Barry Hobin, who has worked with Willis on a number of projects. “Today, everybody’s in camps and yelling at each other. But he’s very reasonable, he’s a good listener, and he has this calmness about him — he tells you what the plain facts are. He’s very straightforward, and he just lays out what the constraints are to getting things done.”
“He’s very careful with his words,” says Plamondon. “So when he speaks, you listen.”
After the NCC, Willis had a short stint in the private sector, then returned to the place where that plum summer job had first drawn him into the world of urban planning. This time he would be leading a department of more than 800 people.
People inside and outside city hall describe him as practical, reasonable, and non-ideological. Hobin says Willis excels at seeing the big picture and balancing all the competing interests involved, always with a view to making the best decision for the city.
“City problems are complex problems,” says Hobin. “Steve has this ability to see things from a broad, multidisciplinary perspective.”
Entrepreneurship has been described as jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down. How about constructing a city? It’s like designing and assembling a cruise ship with the guests already in their rooms. Planning is an inexact science. Willis’s department is not the largest at city hall, but it appears on the council agenda more than twice as often as all the other divisions combined.
“There are lots of big dreamers out there trying to build utopias,” Willis says. “For me, it’s a game of nudging. I’m more in the nudge category than in the lecture category.”
Willis’s goal is not to stand out, which is a challenge for a guy who is six feet five inches. He’s reluctant to take credit for anything on his own, pointing out the size of his team and the ultimate authority of city council. His job, he says, is to be a facilitator, to help solve complex issues by bringing clear information to councillors.
When asked about a recent project that will help give the city a competitive advantage, Willis points to the Chief William Commanda Bridge. Work is beginning to turn the former Prince of Wales railway span into a modern recreational passage between Ottawa and Gatineau.
“I can’t wait to be there the day that opens,” he says. “It’s going to be really spectacular.” It’s one milestone, one tangible result in a never-ending job with many fluid, persistent, and indeterminate outcomes.
“It’s a bit of a humbling thing,” he says. “The work will not be done when I retire.”