Sidewalk Labs, the Google-affiliated company trying to redevelop a portion of Toronto’s waterfront, scrambled to clarify its plans on Friday after it was revealed the company’s ambitions in the city were more extensive than had been previously announced.
For more than a year, Sidewalk has been working on its proposal to redevelop the Quayside neighbourhood into a kind of “smart city” prototype — a Silicon Valley fever dream of robots, autonomous cars, intelligent stop lights, wooden buildings — all using data to make life easier for humans.
But a report in the Toronto Star on Thursday, citing internal presentation slides, suggested that Sidewalk’s ambitions extended beyond a few sparse city blocks.
According to the report, Sidewalk is seeking to facilitate the development of more than 140 hectares across Toronto’s dilapidated eastern waterfront. To expedite the normally glacial pace of public projects, Sidewalk would potentially pay for transit and infrastructure on the underdeveloped waterfront in exchange for a cut of property tax revenue and developer fees.
Sidewalk Labs confirmed some of those details in a blog post, but noted that it wasn’t planning on developing the entire waterfront itself.
Rather, the point is to finance the infrastructure and transit needed for outside development to take place.
“First of all, I want to be clear,” said Micah Lasher, Sidewalk’s head of policy and communications. “These are still concepts in progress. They have not been approved by Alphabet.”
The news still prompted a string of replies from politicians.
Toronto Mayor John Tory responded by stressing that the plan was far from a reality, noting in a statement Friday that Sidewalk hadn’t submitted its proposal for public consultation and government approval, so “no permissions or dispensations have been granted.”
Asked if the mayor was aware of Sidewalk’s change in thinking before the news, his office referred back to the statement.
An Ontario government source added that Premier Doug Ford would never have signed off on the newly revealed details.
Liberal MP Adam Vaughan — a Ford adversary and former Toronto city councillor — said although the Sidewalk offer to finance transit is not “the best way,” it’s proof that developers are desperate for a light rail transit extension into the eastern waterfront area.
“All we’re hearing from the development sector is ‘Where’s the LRT?’” he said. “The best way to respond to the (Sidewalk) document … is to step up and built the LRT with public dollars.”
Sidewalk has been working on its proposal for Quayside since 2017, when it won a request for proposals issued by Waterfront Toronto — the Crown corporation tasked with managing Toronto’s waterfront by the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Sidewalk’s master plan for Quayside — officially called the Master Innovation and Development Plan or MIDP — is expected to be submitted to Waterfront Toronto in the coming months.
But Lasher said that from the outset, Waterfront Toronto was clear that the Quayside project would always need to scale up if it was going to be successful. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that the notion of exploring geographic scale is something that’s new,” he said.
Toronto residents have been gracious so far, but we are done dealing with bad faith actors who have been hiding critical information
Saadia Musaffar, former advisory panel member, Waterfront Toronto
In an interview earlier this month, Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer Meg Davis told the Financial Post that she had seen the “lion’s share” of the master plan’s chapters. But in a statement Friday, Waterfront Toronto would only say that “while preliminary plan concepts from Sidewalk Labs have been shared with us, we have not received a full proposal that includes an underlying business plan.”
“If the MIDP from Sidewalk Labs does not deliver on the priorities that we have set out for Quayside, in a manner that is in the public interest, then the proposed plan will not be implemented,” the statement read.
The statement also reiterated that Sidewalk was selected “to develop a plan for Quayside as a testbed for the broader revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront.”
Sidewalk should take that as a hint to get on track, said Paula Fletcher, the city councillor for the area. “I’m just very confused,” she said. “And I think we’re going to stumble around a while longer until this gets sorted out.”
For some, the revelations were further proof of Sidewalk’s struggles with transparency. The group has faced accusations that it has been too secretive throughout the process. But Lasher said the company has consulted more than 18,000 residents, before submitting its final proposition — which will see more government and public scrutiny.
In October, tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s advisory panel overseeing the Quayside project, over “profound concern” about transparency.
“There has been outright obfuscation and complete avoidance of accountability when asked about their business model for over a year,” she said in an email Friday. “Toronto residents have been gracious so far, but we are done dealing with bad faith actors who have been hiding critical information from us while trying to propose deals. Our home city does not need them for good city-building. We are done.”
—With files from James McLeod, Financial Post