Extreme Makeover

Rollin Stanley is a hotshot city planner -- which begs the question: What the hell is he doing in St. Louis?

In Toronto he was part of an eight-man rowing team that sped thirty-two miles across Lake Ontario. His team won the race four out of five years. The one time they didn't win was when they got slammed by a cold front. Lost in fog, Stanley's team ultimately managed to finish the race. After touching land, though, he collapsed with hypothermia and his heart stopped. After being stripped of his clothes and wrapped in warm blankets, his pulse resumed and he was rushed to the hospital. "That was fun," he laughs. "Oh, it was a blast, I tell you, a blast. It was really an experience."

The fifth of six children -- a veritable Canadian Brady Bunch of three boys and three girls -- Stanley grew up in North Bay, Ontario, three hours north of Toronto. He opted for a career in urban planning during a high-school cross-country meet in Vancouver. His father mentioned a friend who was a planner, recalls Stanley, a guy making a lot of money from it. "I said, 'Hey, that sounds okay. Do you need mathematics for that one?' I was not stellar in math." He attended Ryerson University in Toronto despite an early aversion to city living in general -- back then, he was more comfortable in rural settings. After majoring in urban and regional planning, he was hired as chief planner at Toronto Pearson International Airport; a year later he moved over to work for the city of Toronto.

Stanley earned his stellar reputation, says Joseph Heathcott, an assistant professor of American studies at Saint Louis University, when, on January 1, 1998, Toronto increased its population from 600,000 to 2.4 million overnight. The provincial government of Ontario ordered the city to merge with five cities surrounding it -- and it was Stanley's job to make it work. "He's well known among planners and educators for pushing the envelope, of thinking regionally," says Heathcott. "He was one of those people who actually worked it out in practice. Stanley was right there in the middle. And that's an enormous accomplishment."

Stanley surveys a midtown warehouse complex. 
Friends call him a "bold and ballsy guy."
Jennifer Silverberg
Stanley surveys a midtown warehouse complex. Friends call him a "bold and ballsy guy."

In Toronto Stanley had a rap for speaking his mind and for being unafraid to clash with adversaries. Frank Lewinberg, also of Urban Strategies Inc., is a Toronto-based development planner who often worked on building proposals with Stanley. "When you got Rollin," he says, "you were pleased, because you knew you weren't going to get any bullshit. You knew you were going to get the straight goods." Some of that can be perceived as bullheadedness, adds Lewinberg. "He's not a shy guy. He likes to get attention. He likes to sort of say, 'Look, I'm here. I have something to say.'"

Stanley's planning philosophy was forged in part by urban theorist Jane Jacobs. Her landmark 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is the bible of the new-urbanist movement, stressing the need for cohesive, tight-knit neighborhoods and decrying ways the automobile fractures the fabric of urban life. Jacobs used to attend Stanley's Toronto planning hearings.

Despite the respect given to him by academics, Stanley's feeling for them is not quite mutual. "I'm not huge on academia," he says matter-of-factly. "I think they need to get out more."

After two decades in Toronto, Stanley chose a new direction. "I started studying how things were done in America. I always thought that I wanted to be the planning director of either St. Louis or Detroit, because those would be the biggest challenges." It didn't hurt that Stanley's wife of eleven years, Ann, was born and raised in St. Louis. After accepting the job, the Stanleys settled in Soulard.

Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies says Stanley is the perfect antidote for St. Louis. "Rollin's a ballsy guy," he says. "He's always had an attractively flamboyant quality to him." And that might help St. Louis, he says. "It's actually a good idea to have people with an exaggerated personality. It helps to stir things up a little bit."

SLU's Heathcott couldn't believe it when he heard Stanley got the top planning job. "It was an accident," jokes Heathcott. "Someone was asleep and actually pushed his pile into the 'yes' category with their elbow when they were nodding off. I don't know what happened."

Mayor Slay says he was looking for an experienced idea man when interviewing candidates for the job. "One of the things I found out about him was that he had a wonderful reputation in Toronto as somebody who wasn't just a utility person, but somebody who was a true visionary," says Slay. "I liked him right away because he exudes passion for urban areas. He likes rejuvenating places."

"The way I look at myself and a lot of the other folks -- and I mean metaphorically -- is that we've got a lot of plumbers and builders, but we need some dreamers," echoes Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff.

So far, however, Heathcott has been disappointed. "I think a lot of us had really high hopes. I'm still a big fan of Rollin Stanley's. I happen to like his abrasive style. I think St. Louis needs that. But on the other hand, he is serving a very backward, strong-headed administration that seems to not really care about the long-term viability of the city. "If you're a small-minded person like Francis Slay," he adds, "why would you hire someone like Rollin Stanley? I don't know. I think he got good advice."

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