Torontonians will learn within a week whether a massive proposal to turn a section of the city’s waterfront into a tech-driven neighbourhood is moving ahead or dead in the water.
Oct. 31 is the date by which Waterfront Toronto and partner Sidewalk Labs have agreed on to resolve what they call “threshold issues” — the stumbling blocks that must be overcome before the evaluation process can continue.
Those sticking points include Sidewalk Labs’ insistence that a new Light Rail Transit line be built along the eastern waterfront to service the thousands of new residents and employees in the mixed use neighbourhood — a demand Waterfront Toronto says it can’t commit to — and an ongoing debate about exactly how much land is in play.
Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is promising to build a district of the future near Parliament St. and Queens Quay E., with buildings made of wood and innovations that include driverless cars, heated pavement that melts snow, and sensors that would gather data in the public realm on everything from weather conditions to the movement of pedestrians, all with the aim of making urban life more efficient.
Critics say the data collection will be intrusive and raises privacy concerns, as well as questions about where and how the data would be stored. They say rejecting the Sidewalk proposal now will provide time for more — and much-needed — reflection on how to develop the prime real estate on Toronto’s eastern waterfront.
Proponents say the tech and construction jobs that would flow from the project, not to mention the benefits to the city’s reputation, are too important to turn down.
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs continue to negotiate behind closed doors as the days wind down to the deadline. Sidewalk Labs put forward a massive master plan proposal for the project in the spring — more than 1,500 pages — and is putting forward an additional “appendix” to address criticisms that the proposal was short on details.
As negotiations entered their final week, Waterfront Toronto board chair Steve Diamond wasn’t giving any clues.
“Discussions are continuing,” Diamond said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “We are aiming to ensure that on Oct. 31 some sort of result is achieved one way or the other.”
Experts say a lot is at stake.
Toronto and Canada’s reputation in the tech world
Janet Ecker was one of 30 civic leaders who signed a letter of support for the Sidewalk project in July. In an interview this week, the former provincial finance minister bluntly stated that if the Sidewalk proposal falls through, it will be yet “another nail in the coffin” for Canada’s global reputation in the tech world and when it comes to the ability to deliver “big bold” projects.
“Investors have complained about the inability of the country to complete bit projects of many kinds in different sectors. This will just be another example of where we couldn’t get our collective act together to deliver would could be a very beneficial project,” said Ecker.
“There’s just a sense that too often we get lost in the details of big major transformational projects. That’s not to diminish legitimate issues and concerns that people raise about such projects, but in this case — certainly for the Sidewalk project — there are solutions for the issues and criticisms that people have raised and in my view those issues are not a reason to say no.”
David Fewer, the director of the University of Ottawa’s Samuelson-Glushko Canadian internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), acknowledges that it wouldn’t look good “on a fairly superficial level” if Waterfront Toronto can’t come to a deal with Sidewalk Labs.
But he hastened to add that Sidewalk Labs’ smart city proposal is “such a unique and massive project, so complex and so out there compared to the vast majority of tech plays … (that) it’s difficult for another company to take that as indicative one way or the other of Toronto’s ability as a tech partner.
“If you’re a tech business, you’re not going to base a decision on an opportunity that is otherwise good for you because of some other transaction involving another company and a completely different opportunity.”
The scope of the project is exactly why losing it would be such a missed opportunity, argues Jan De Silva, president and CEO of the Toronto and Region Board of Trade.
“Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. The things we need to solve for Sidewalk Labs — like our operating and regulatory environment around data collection and other things, the need to solve for autonomous vehicles, for smart cities to work — this is all stuff that is next generation economy enabling, and so it’s not just Sidewalk,” Da Silva said.
“What Sidewalk gives us is a huge global spotlight on talents and capabilities here in the region, so we should take full advantage of that.”
Concerns over land use
One of the most contentious aspects of the Sidewalk Labs project is the question of how much land the development should take in — a 12-acre “beta site” called Quayside at the corner of Queens Quay E., or that plus a slice of the larger 190 acres in the Port Lands that Sidewalk Labs is calling the “IDEA District.”
Earlier this year, the Star reported that Sidewalk Labs had the larger land play in mind, despite presentations from the company that only talked about Quayside.
Sidewalk now says it needs the larger “scale” to pilot its innovations.
After the Star story ran, Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer Meg Davis told the House of Commons’ standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics that Waterfront Toronto’s original request for proposals had always allowed for “thinking at scale” beyond Quayside.
But Diamond, the Waterfront Toronto chair, balked at the larger-scale proposal when Sidewalk Labs released its master plan.
“Waterfront Toronto has told Sidewalk Labs that the concept of the IDEA District is premature,” he wrote in a June letter. “Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas.”
That remains one of several “threshold” issues, as is Sidewalk’s proposal to be the lead developer at Quayside.
These are cornerstone issues because of the high value of the land at stake, particularly the Port Lands, says Matti Siemiatycki, a University of Toronto associate professor of geography and planning and a former member of the Waterfront Toronto board of directors.
Siemiatycki says the Port Lands are the remaining “crown jewel” of undeveloped land in the city.
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“Sidewalk Labs is … an important developer and have brought a lot of attention to this city and a lot of scrutiny — but they’re not the only game in town,” he said.
“There are other developers, other actors who have creative ideas and there are other projects that can happen there. This is one attempt to get that built. They’ve brought forward some interesting ideas. There’s been a lot of contention about it, (but) if it should fall through, it’ll be a chance to reflect and see what other options are out there.
“I think the 12 acres was initially what the public saw as the Quayside bid. I think that’s where the initial phase should be (for Sidewalk Labs) to prove out the technologies, to prove out their development capacity, to prove they can deliver.
What about the jobs?
Sidewalk Labs estimates that its proposal, including the broader IDEA District, would create a whopping 93,000 jobs, 10,500 of which would be focused on innovation. That would include about 9,000 construction jobs in the province, many of them tied to new timber-based buildings Sidewalk Labs wants to create with wood sourced from Ontario producers.
The firm says that 3,900 jobs would be created at Quayside alone, including 3,400 office jobs, and 275 retail jobs.
The IDEA District jobs would include a new Google Canada headquarters in the Port Lands and an innovation camps for tech-based research. They would be created on the yet-to-be developed Villiers West section of the Port Lands, which is city-owned property.
Diamond has said the Villiers West proposal is “definitely worth a look.” So has Mayor John Tory.
“If you said to me right now, am I prepared to stand here and rule out using Villiers Island for a head office that will have 1,000 jobs for a major global company? No, I’m not,” Tory told reporters in June. “I am I prepared to say, sure go ahead? No, I’m not — but I’m certainly willing to consider it.”
If the partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs ends on Thursday, Waterfront Toronto has said that the next step would include further evaluation of the project and more public input.
It’s fair to guess that would also include issuing another request for proposals. The proposal that brought Sidewalk on board called for a partner to help create and fund a “globally significant community that will showcase advanced technologies, building materials, sustainable practices and innovative business models.”
But if Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto agree to go forward after Oct. 31, there will be another round of public consultations, as well as input from the city of Toronto, particularly on the data governance issue.
The deadline for signing “principal implementation agreements” — the deal to actually launch Sidewalk’s plan — would be Dec. 31, 2020.
“Waterfront Toronto will be ready for all scenarios in pursuit of its commitment to building a next generation community in Quayside,” spokesperson Andrew Tumilty said.
Julie Beddoes a spokesperson for #BlockSidewalk, a citizens’ group opposed to the proposal, says if Sidewalk Labs’ is sent packing, “we will need to have a public discussion about what to do with these lands going forward.
“Obviously, #BlockSidewalk would happily disband, particularly knowing that there are many existing groups and organizations that can be pulled into this discussion to ensure that our waterfront will be developed with the interest of Torontonians at heart,” she said.
For its part, Sidewalk Labs is “committed to Toronto” and optimistic that “we will reach alignment on critical outstanding issues,” said spokesperson Keerthana Rang.
“Should we align with Waterfront Toronto on these issues, we look forward to their next round of public consultations, entering the evaluation phase, and continuing to negotiate a deal that is in the best interest of Torontonians.”