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Toronto Officials Balk At Sidewalk Labs' Expanded Smart City Plan

A rendering of a pedestrian area in Sidewalk Labs' proposal for Quayside, a portion of the Toronto waterfront

Sidewalk Labs has grown more ambitious with its plans to build a smart city in Toronto, but that ambition may put the project in jeopardy.

A separate subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., Sidewalk Labs was in 2017 awarded the rights to develop a master plan for the 12-acre portion of Toronto's waterfront called Quayside. On Monday, the company released its 1,500-page official proposal, and it includes plans for much more than just Quayside.

The Master Innovation and Development Plan, which Sidewalk Labs has named Toronto Tomorrow, contains specific development plans for Quayside, which would be primarily residential, as well as the 19-acre western portion of Villiers Island, dubbed Villiers West in the MIDP. About three-fifths of Villiers West would be devoted to Google's new Canadian headquarters.

Toronto Tomorrow also calls for the creation of a 190-acre Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration district that would encompass Quayside and Villiers West. Sidewalk Labs would lead a partnership to develop those two districts and would outsource development to the rest of the land. The futuristic infrastructure that Sidewalk Labs was brought on to provide would be extended to the whole IDEA district under the plan.

Waterfront Toronto, the partnership of city, province and national government officials that awarded planning rights to Sidewalk Labs, retains the right to approve or deny the proposal, and its initial public reaction may not inspire optimism.

A rendering of Sidewalk Labs' Quayside project proposal for Toronto's Eastern Waterfront

In an open letter, Waterfront Toronto Chairman Steve Diamond said that his organization and Sidewalk Labs "have very different perspectives" on the future of Quayside, and he laid out a number of preliminary concerns with the MIDP:

  • The scope of the proposal. "Waterfront Toronto has told Sidewalk Labs that the concept of the IDEA district is premature and that Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas," Diamond wrote.
  • Sidewalk Labs positioning itself as lead developer for Quayside and Villiers West. "This is not contemplated in the [Plan Development Agreement]," Diamond wrote. "Should the MIDP go forward, it should be on the basis that Waterfront Toronto lead a competitive, public procurement process for a developer(s) to partner with Sidewalk Labs."
  • The upfront demands on the extensions of light rail transit lines to service Quayside and the IDEA district, the creation of a new government agency to oversee the district, and the creation of an independent agency to oversee the smart city's data collection and distribution. "These proposals raise important implementation concerns," Diamond wrote. "They are also not commitments that Waterfront Toronto can make."
  • The data collection, which is proposed to be on a scale previously unheard of for a city's built environment. Diamond said Waterfront Toronto will require more information than Sidewalk Labs has provided on data practices before approval can be given.
A rendering of Sidewalk Labs' proposed Quayside development on Toronto's Eastern Waterfront

Waterfront Toronto and Toronto City Council will hold public hearings on the MIDP in the months to come, with a final vote to be made by this winter at the earliest. Sidewalk Labs said it solicited the input of over 20,000 people in the Toronto area in crafting its proposal.

The time leading up to that vote could be a tense standoff, as Waterfront Toronto has seemingly saved its strongest pushback for the increased scope of the plan. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff had a similar tone in his response to Diamond.

“Now, (if) at the end of the day people don’t want us to do something beyond Quayside, that’s entirely fair," Doctoroff told the Edmonton Journal. "It doesn’t mean we’ll want to do Quayside, though ... I’m not using the term 'deal breaker,' but what I will say is that we do not believe just at the scale of Quayside that Waterfront Toronto’s priority objectives can be achieved. That’s just a reality.”

Even before the release of the MIDP, the fight over Sidewalk Labs' involvement has taken casualties. Several city officials, as well as Diamond's predecessor at the head of Waterfront Toronto, have already resigned amid the controversy, CNN reports.