Two key players at the centre of the Sidewalk Toronto smart city project struck a genial tone and joked about their past disagreements at a Toronto Regional Board of Trade luncheon Monday, the first time the two men have spoken publicly together at an event.
Stephen Diamond, the chairman of Waterfront Toronto, spoke glowingly about the proposed development, downplaying concerns about data and privacy issues, while the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, Dan Doctoroff, said he still intends for Toronto to be the “flagship” project for the urban innovation company.
The event appeared to signal a possible thaw in the past chilly relationship between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto and comes at a critical time for the proposed development.
Over the next two-and-a-half months, Waterfront Toronto, a federal-provincial-municipal public agency, will continue its expert review of the project, followed by a round of public consultation and then a final decision on whether it will go ahead.
But Diamond said that, in his mind, the current proposal is in keeping with Waterfront Toronto’s mandate.
It’s been a long and controversial road since 2017, when Waterfront Toronto issued a request for proposals looking for a private-sector partner to come up with a master plan to address issues of affordable housing, climate change and urban innovation on a 12-acre plot of land on Toronto’s eastern waterfront.
After more than a year and a half of public consultations, Sidewalk Labs, a sister-company to Google owned by Alphabet Inc., delivered a 1,500-page plan that envisioned a sprawling development across roughly 190 acres, with some of the land sold to the company at less than market rate.
Sidewalk Labs also demanded the city build public transit to the site, and asked governments to create new public agencies to govern data collection and usage in the neighbourhood.
Immediately, Diamond published an open letter saying that the plan wouldn’t fly, and over the summer and fall, the two sides engaged in a tense negotiation to hammer out a compromise.
In October, the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors voted to move ahead with a formal evaluation of the project, after a series of concessions from Sidewalk Labs dramatically scaled back the proposal. (Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns the Financial Post, is a member of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto.)
The project ‘never really was about data.’
Dan Doctoroff, chief executive, Sidewalk Labs
Consultants are now reviewing aspects of the projects, which is now confined to the original 12 acres and has stronger profit-sharing protections for urban innovations that might come from it.
The public will get another chance to weigh in on the development in February, before a final board vote in March, and the City of Toronto is doing its own evaluation separately, but in the meantime, Diamond was speaking glowingly about the current version of the project.
“I do believe that where we are today — with those concessions — does not only allow this project to meet the original intention of the RFP, but I also believe it helps to meet the very objectives that Waterfront Toronto was set up to do back in 2001,” Diamond said.
“We were intended to look for innovative solutions to rehabilitate and rejuvenate the waterfront.”
Doctoroff downplayed the importance of data and sensors, and instead he emphasized the innovative architectural techniques and materials, saying the project “never really was about data.”
Diamond likened data collection at the Sidewalk Labs project to the 407 toll highway in Toronto, which scans licence plates to bill drivers.
Jan Da Silva, CEO of the Board of Trade, told the Financial Post that the board has long been a supporter of the development, because they believe it will be an important marker for Toronto’s innovation economy.
“If we don’t do this, a lot the great innovation and research and talent that’s working here is simply going to commercialize it into other projects outside of Canada,” Da Silva said.
“We’ve got to take action on positioning our economy to be relevant going forward, and this is kind of at the crux of why we’ve been a big supporter of this initiative.”
Despite the camaraderie on display Monday, the project is still facing significant opposition.
Thorben Wieditz, who represents the Block Sidewalk group, said that they’re planning to push hard for Waterfront Toronto to reject the project.
“As Block Sidewalk, we are concerned that Google is gobbling up the waterfront, and Sidewalk Labs has captured Waterfront Toronto,” Wieditz said.
“Waterfront Toronto has lost its trust and legitimacy to act … in the public interest, and this is not going to go away because of the realignment on Oct. 31. We will be voicing our concerns in the next couple of months, more loudly and more forcefully.”