A group of academics, business leaders and experts have sent a letter to Waterfront Toronto, decrying what they call a lack of transparency about its closed door dealings with Sidewalk Labs.
The letter calls on Waterfront Toronto to disclose details of private meetings with Sidewalk Labs about the Google subsidiary’s proposed plans to acquire public land to build a data-driven smart district on the city’s eastern waterfront. The letter is also meant to be a response to one sent earlier this year from 30 civic leaders, who urged residents to “welcome and evaluate” the proposal.
“Since the results of the request for proposal for Quayside were announced in 2017, in-camera meetings have become all too common at Waterfront Toronto. . . ,” states the letter which takes aim at Sidewalk Labs’ attempts to expand outside the 12-acre footprint of the Quayside site administered by Waterfront Toronto.
When shown the letter by the Star, a spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto, a tri-government agency, said the private meetings were necessary to safeguard “commercially confidential” issues.
Waterfront has committed to releasing the outcome of those private talks, if negotiations move toward a full evaluation of Sidewalk’s master plan, said Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty.
He said Waterfront and Sidewalk Labs, a Manhattan-based urban innovation firm, will have to resolve key issues, including the projects’ proposed footprint which now extends beyond the 12-acre site controlled by Waterfront; and Sidewalk Labs’ insistence that a new light rail transit line be built along the eastern waterfront to service the site.
Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang said she wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of the letter.
“Our negotiations with Waterfront Toronto, which come in between extensive public consultation processes, make us unable to comment on the specifics of the letter,” Rang said in a statement. “We are working to address critical issues with Waterfront Toronto to make sure that if we proceed, we do so with a project that will put the public interest first.”
The site in question is Quayside, a 12-acre parcel of land near Queens Quay East and Parliament Street. It’s currently home to aging warehouses, parking lots and unused space.
Letter signees said it’s uncommon for so many private meetings to be held. Tumilty said bylaws for board of directors do permit in-camera sessions when necessary, but the frequency is something he would need to look into.
Oct. 31 is the date by which Waterfront Toronto, and partner Sidewalk Labs have agreed on to overcome the stumbling blocks, like Sidewalk Labs’ transit demand, that must be overcome before it can be put forward for a full evaluation.
“During that evaluation there will be further public consultation,” Tumilty said Sunday.
Should it go to evaluation there will be another board vote in March, he said.
Tumilty acknowledged that the scope and scale of the project, along with land acquisition talks are among some of the issues discussed during closed door meetings. He added that, some of the meetings, since June, have been closed to the public because “we’re talking about some commercially confidential issues and financial issues that need to be confidential at this point, so that we’re able to protect public’s interest resolving some of these (issues) in a way that’s best for the city.”
This summer, Google sister firm Sidewalk Labs unveiled its more than 1,500-page draft master plan for developing a mostly residential “beta site” on a 12-acre parcel of land near Queens Quay East and Parliament Street, as well as a yet-to-be-built district in the Port Lands called Villiers West for an innovation hub that would include Google Canada’s new headquarters.
The letter, signed by more than 100 people including members of citizens group #BlockSidewalk, which is opposed to the project, calls on Waterfront Toronto, to provide full transparency about ongoing negotiations with Sidewalk Labs.
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“We think that the public has a right to know,” said Thorben Wieditz, one of the letters signatories and a member of #BlockSidewalk.
He said Waterfront Toronto should not “engage behind closed doors, in negotiations over public assets.”
Some of the people signing the letter include: renowned architect Jack Diamond, street nurse Cathy Crowe and Beck Taxi’s Kristine Hubbard.