Sidewalk Labs’ role in remaking Toronto’s east waterfront could end Oct. 31 if the Google sister company and Waterfront Toronto cannot resolve fundamental disagreements over plans for the globally watched project.
The waterfront development agency representing the city, province and federal government and Sidewalk Labs have agreed on the Halloween deadline to address stumbling blocks on turning a 12-acre site dubbed Quayside, and possibly another 178 acres of public land to the east, into a living laboratory for the sustainable neighbourhood of the future.
If agreement proves impossible on sticking points including a new transit line and the amount of land involved, said Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty, the agency’s board would have to decide how to proceed. Sending Sidewalk Labs packing, and restarting a global search for a new waterfront development partner, is among the options.
“We don’t want to go through an evaluation of the entire (master innovation and development plan) if there are unresolved issues … ” Tumilty said Friday, a day after Waterfront posted online notice that it is extending the current agreement, to work toward a final plan, by six months until March 31 — unless unresolved issues make an Oct. 31 termination date necessary.
“If for whatever reason (work with Sidewalk Labs) was not to go ahead, we’re still committed to exploring how we can solve some of these great urban challenges that Toronto and cities around the world face.
“So if it were to terminate entirely, we would still be committed to moving ahead (with development of the 12-acre Quayside site) and we’d have to figure out what the best way to do that would be.”
After Manhattan-based Sidewalk Labs released its proposed master agreement in June, Waterfront Toronto chair Steve Diamond issued a letter raising strong concerns about the requirement for a new waterfront light rail line, which Sidewalk Labs said is vital to the project and which it could help finance. Waterfront Toronto has no jurisdiction over building new transit lines, Diamond said.
The government agency is also concerned by Sidewalk Labs’ plan to expand the scope of the project beyond the 12-acre site at Queens Quay and Parliament St. to a total of 190 acres including part of neighbouring Villiers Island, to be created as part of a $1.25-billion government flood-proofing project.
Sidewalk Labs says it would put Google Canada’s headquarters on Villiers Island and needs space to develop an innovation zone where firms could fully realize the potential of urban problem-solvers including tall-timber buildings, autonomous vehicles and winter-shielded outdoor spaces.
In a statement, Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang said the company agreed to extend the planned development agreement and include the Halloween escape hatch.
Pushing the deadline for a master agreement is “consistent with the timetable we were already on, allowing for Waterfront Toronto’s (public) consultation and evaluation process to proceed as planned,” she wrote. “We also felt it made sense to create a deadline for the resolution of major outstanding issues before significant parts of that evaluation process commence.”
In another development, Waterfront Toronto’s design review panel, experts who evaluate all projects to ensure plans meet the agency’s criteria and objectives, rejected, for now, part of the Sidewalk Labs plan and gave conditional approval to another.
In a blog post on the Waterfront Toronto website recapping the panel’s June 24 meeting with Sidewalk Labs officials, the agency says the advisory panel voted “non-support” for Quayside’s proposed “urban design and public realm,” or outdoor features.
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The panel noted “public spaces were heavily programmed and did not embrace the continuity of the public realm that Waterfront Toronto has achieved over the past 10 years along the waterfront.”
The panel voted to give plans for buildings on the north side of Queens Quay “conditional support,” saying some changes are needed but others made since a previous presentation are “showing potential.”
In the note Paul Bedford, the renowned Toronto planner who heads the panel, noted that plans for past Waterfront Toronto projects including the much-admired Underpass Park received criticism during development but were modified and later built. The panel offers advice to the Waterfront Toronto board that makes final decisions.
The city, provincial and federal governments are all guaranteed final say over whether the Sidewalk-Quayside project can proceed.
Sidewalk Labs’ selection as the preferred development partner for Quayside was announced with fanfare and international headlines in October 2017 at a waterfront ceremony that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Eric Schmidt, then executive chair of Alphabet, the parent company of Google and Sidewalk Labs.
Since then the project, considered a world-first attempt to build a sensor-laden, high-tech test neighbourhood within the core of a major city, has run into controversy with public concerns over data privacy and ownership and control of Toronto’s east waterfront that is set to be transformed from a polluted, formerly industrial site into a vibrant, valuable extension of downtown.
The Toronto Region Board of Trade is among groups urging Waterfront Toronto to continue working toward final agreement on Quayside with Sidewalk Labs, which is offering to help bring up to $1.3 billion in funding and financing for the redevelopment.
But others, including a group calling itself #BlockSidewalk, say the tech giant is trying to hijack government decision-making and railroad Toronto into a deal that gives private interests too much power over Torontonians’ land and data.
Thorben Wieditz, a Block Sidewalk member, on Friday welcomed the possibility that Sidewalk Labs’ work in Toronto could end at Halloween.
“Our number one goal is to say Sidewalk Labs is the wrong vendor … if we can end it, the sooner the better,” he said in an interview.
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider