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Dan Doctoroff On Google's City: 'Unlike Amazon ... We're Not Looking For Handouts'

Dan Doctoroff started his career as an investment banker, served as New York's deputy mayor for economic development under Michael Bloomberg, then left government to run Bloomberg L.P. But when the mayor finished his term and returned to run his company, Doctoroff wondered what to do next.

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs
Dan Doctoroff outlined his vision for Sidewalk Toronto during a Bisnow event in Tampa.

“Then, I got an email from Eric Schmidt saying that Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, was interested in building the city of [the] future,” he said during Bisnow and Dreamit's cities of the future event in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday. “I thought he was nuts.”

Once they started talking, Doctoroff said he and Page agreed cities across the globe face the same challenges: unaffordable housing, traffic congestion and climate change. Humanity is facing a rare moment in time when a new, revolutionary technology can reshape the world. Just as inventions like modern plumbing and the automobile radically changed civilization, today's technologies like cellphones and self-driving cars hold the same power.

What would a city look like, Doctoroff and Page wondered, if they could start it from scratch, with digital technologies? Two years ago, under the umbrella of Alphabet, Google's parent company, they launched Sidewalk Labs to tackle city planning projects from a fresh perspective.

They believe tech, deployed correctly, could solve big urban problems, make the world healthier, greener and fairer and reduce the cost of living by about 14% for an average family.

They began to design “a city from the internet up,” Doctoroff said, and got the chance to turn it into a reality when Toronto, in March, sought out partners to redevelop its waterfront.

Billionaire Jeff Vinik at a Bisnow event Dec. 5, 2017
Jeff Vinik, in partnership with Bill Gates' Cascade Investment LLC, is building a $3B project called Water Street Tampa.

"Unlike Amazon ... we replied to a government RFP," Doctoroff said. "We followed their rules and submitted a proposal. We're not asking for handouts.”

Their plan was chosen and revealed in October. Sidewalk Toronto is a blueprint for a radical, mixed-use development on 800 acres. Sidewalk Labs' vision includes smart intersections that can tell how many cars, bikes and pedestrians use them each day and whether a person needs 30 more seconds to cross the street; health systems incorporated into communities and responsive to needs of residents, including low-income families; and buildings designed with underground tunnels for package deliveries and “smart chutes” that sort recyclables from garbage.

To start, Google's Canadian HQ will move to the waterfront and Sidewalk Labs has committed $50M for initial planning. Either Sidewalk Labs or the government can back out after the first year, but Doctoroff said he does not expect that will happen. He hopes the model is replicated around the world.

That is what happened when he helped design the High Line park in New York, he said; two years later, there were 36 copycat projects being proposed in other cities, like the BeltLine in Atlanta.

Doctoroff thinks Sidewalk Toronto will take 15 to 20 years to execute, and that along the way developers will revolutionize how the regulatory process works. He hopes to establish performance-based building codes where projects can proceed so long as they meet basic requirements.

“We can safely eliminate 80% of the standard building code and much of the zoning, and make it easier to launch or modify a new building, a new business, new housing,” he said.

“A century ago, cities were just teeming with life," Doctoroff said. "You didn't have to worry about cars, because there weren't any.”

People lived close to work, had time to chat with neighbors, and kids played safely in the streets.

“The irony is, we believe the city of the future can look a lot like the city of the past,” Doctoroff said.

Not everyone is as excited about Doctoroff's utopia. Critics have said Alphabet would be overstepping boundaries by operating a city without being elected and that it is leading to a future where "humans may be optional."

Other speakers at Tuesday's summit included Jeff Vinik, developer of Water Street Tampa — the second-biggest private development underway in the U.S., after Hudson Yards in New York — who talked of starting a new venture capital fund to attract businesses to Tampa.

Camille Renshaw unveiled a new technology platform, Brokers+Engineers, specifically for trading triple-net-leased property, from origination to close, and Dreamit, a startup accelerator, introduced a slate of entrepreneurs who were raising venture capital for innovative projects ranging from wind turbines to smart water meters.