How the Sidewalk Labs proposal landed in Toronto: the backstory

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In 2001, when Waterfront Toronto was formed, Mel Lastman was in the waning days of his mayoralty, Vince Carter was the heart of the Raptors and Google was still just a search engine. At first, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, as it was clumsily called, was a task force created by the federal, provincial and municipal governments to help win our bid for the 2008 Olympics. When we lost, it was charged with revitalizing the post-industrial Port Lands. Waterfront Toronto has never had the authority or financial clout commensurate with the job, but over the decades, it has made some long-overdue improvements to the lakeshore—a more pedestrian-friendly Queens Quay, inventive parks like Corktown Common and the Bentway, and a gleaming George Brown campus, among other developments. Toronto has never been particularly creative about, or all that interested in, public space—we’re too parsimonious, for one thing—but Waterfront Toronto, deliberately, carefully and in many ways modestly moved the ball forward. Outside of Toronto, of course, others had taken the ball and knocked it out of the park. There was Canary Wharf in London, Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Pittsburgh riverfront. These were widely considered the paragons of waterfront redevelopment—splashy, innovative, indispensable. Shouldn’t we be as ambitious? Couldn’t we dream bigger?

Google did, of course. Launched in 1998, over the past two decades it has become one of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful tech giants. It got so large that it outgrew its own name—a parent company, Alphabet Inc., was formed to contain the behemoth and all its acquisitions and subsidiaries. Google had a stranglehold on the virtual world, but it was not content to stay there. It developed self-driving car technology and moved into biotech, where it developed various health-tracking devices. All that was left for Google, it seemed, was for it to build its own city.

In 2015, it set out to do just that, with the help of Dan Doctoroff, Michael Bloomberg’s former deputy mayor for economic development and the lead on New York’s failed 2012 Olympic bid. The company they launched was Sidewalk Labs, and its mandate was to build a city that was safer, cheaper, more sustainable, more equitable and more fun than the ones we currently live in. And it would do so, mainly, the way that Google knew best—through data.

In 2016, Waterfront Toronto, which co-owned with the city the 12-acre dogleg now known as Quayside, invited Sidewalk to town, providing surveys, topographic illustrations and a guided tour of the waterfront. The following year, Waterfront Toronto issued a request for proposals seeking an “innovation and funding partner” to develop the site as a test bed for ideas that could be implemented along the eastern waterfront. Several firms responded, including a consortium comprising OMERS, Manulife Financial and Mattamy Homes. By September 2017, Waterfront Toronto, under then-CEO Will Fleissig, a planner from San Francisco, had selected Sidewalk’s proposal, attracted by its plan to make the eastern waterfront “the global hub of a new industry focused on urban innovation to improve the quality of city life.” At a press conference a month later, Fleissig said that Waterfront Toronto was “partnering” with Sidewalk to create a “progressive, innovative community.” The idea that a public agency and a tech behemoth could be partners instantly raised hackles.

The proposal was big and bold and undeniably seductive—an urbanist theme park that, theoretically anyway, appealed to progressives and municipal penny-pinchers alike. It envisioned an experimental, mixed-use complete community for about 5,000 residents. It proposed lush public plazas and broad streets ruled by pedestrians and cyclists and a fleet of automated vehicles. Sensors and cameras would be embedded in practically everything—the asphalt and sewer drains, the garbage cans and park benches—so that traffic patterns, energy use and trash disposal could be precisely tracked and measured and better managed. Modular buildings, many of which would be priced at below-market rates, would be constructed of sustainable timber. Bad weather would be a thing of the past—residents would be shielded by “raincoats” draped over buildings, and heated pavers would melt snow and ice. It would be powered by a zero-emissions microgrid. It would be, as Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk’s bushy-bearded director of public realm, put it, “a people-first city in the digital age.” In some of Sidewalk’s early renderings, this Toronto of tomorrow looked like storyboards Chris Ware might have drawn for a remake of Blade Runner—cutting edge and futuristic, but colourful and friendly, too.


The Plan

Sidewalk also pledged to spend an unprecedented $50 million (U.S.) on developing the plan, including public consultation. Thus began two years of hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Sidewalk had promised the moon—or at least to revolutionize the lunar landscape of the waterfront—but they were also often, in their presentations and town halls, weirdly secretive, frustratingly vague and, at times, kind of patronizing. They suggested that Toronto needed innovation, or, more aggressively, to be innovated, and that our cash-strapped, dysfunctional government wasn’t up to the task. When people and pundits asked legitimate questions about privacy, intellectual property and who exactly would be running Quayside, they found Sidewalk’s responses to be incomplete. Sidewalk was still figuring this stuff out, they said. Building a new world from scratch is complicated. Be patient. Trust us. It’ll be worth it.

The plan’s enthusiasts said Sidewalk would transform the city into a high-tech capital like Shanghai or San Francisco. Critics argued that the tail was wagging the dog. Toronto had already ceded too much control to Google, and things were just going to get worse—Sidewalk might promise better governance, but what they really wanted was to monetize our data and sell us goods. At bottom, it all felt a bit like when Hollywood comes to Toronto to make a movie. In the name of jobs and a pinch of glamour, we bend over backwards to clog our streets with monstrous production vehicles, hand over tax credits and do our best imitation of Chicago or New York. In those movies, Toronto isn’t a city unto itself, with its own distinctive identity, but a blank slate upon which someone else’s vision is projected. In an interview with Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, Doctoroff joked that he had finally learned how to properly say “Toronto.” He said he loved the city, but it sounded like the love you reserve for a favourite pet. Or a lab rat.

The question—what was Google going to give us?—was overshadowed by a more pressing one: what does Google want from us? This has always been the concern around free digital tools, from Twitter to YouTube, but in this case, we were talking about much broader, more fundamental aspects of human life: how we live, systems of governance, our sense of privacy. A decade ago, such tools might have seemed largely benign and beneficial, but in recent years, their potential to drive consumer desire, manipulate public opinion and undermine mainstream media—in short, their ability to shape reality—has made the public intensely suspicious of their creators’ motives. Google is now the biggest digital advertising company in the world, and one of the sneakiest. As the New York Times pointed out, in the past 20 years, its privacy policy has grown from 600 to 4,000 words, an expansion that embodies the head-spinning complexity of our digital economy.

Throughout all this, Waterfront Toronto was dealing with its own problems. One board member resigned, saying that Sidewalk had become “our filter, our gatekeeper and our agent,” and then, last December, the auditor general issued a highly critical report of the agency and its dealings with Sidewalk. In response, the Ford government fired the Waterfront chair and two other board members. In February, they were replaced with new provincial appointees and the private developer Stephen Diamond, head of DiamondCorp, who called himself an “idealistic pragmatist” and a “consensus builder.”

Such dissent and discontent slowed Sidewalk but didn’t stop it. In late June, the company released its Master Innovation and Development Plan. Its massive size—1,524 pages, eight kilograms—is the clearest indication of how complicated Sidewalk’s vision is. Entitled Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth, it promised to spend up to $1.3 billion on the neighbourhood, creating 44,000 direct jobs, $4.3 billion in annual tax revenue and $14.2 billion in annual GDP impact by 2040. It fleshed out the innovations that Sidewalk had been teasing for months and added even more: thousands of affordable housing units, a manufacturing plant for that newfangled timber, 89 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than the rest of the city, an independent, government-sanctioned “urban data trust” that would oversee the collection and use of data obtained from the physical environment, and a new Canadian headquarters for Google.

In exchange for all that, Sidewalk also wanted more. It argued that it couldn’t realize the full potential for the project on Quayside’s mere 12 acres and it now wanted to build an additional 153-acre “River District,” which, combined with Quayside, would be called the “IDEA District”—IDEA being an acronym for “innovative design and economic acceleration.” It offered to pony up $100 million to help finance a Waterfront LRT that would service the area—even though such a line is not a priority for the TTC, it would cost an estimated $1.2 billion and there is currently no public money allocated to such a thing anyway. Sidewalk proposed that it would be the lead developer of Quayside, effectively shunting Waterfront Toronto aside.

Detractors voiced their scorn. A wounded Waterfront Toronto—once Sidewalk’s biggest booster—acted like the company was an invasive plant whose blossoms had suddenly turned deadly. In the agency’s open letter, Diamond called the IDEA district “premature,” nixed Sidewalk’s plans to be lead developer and reminded everybody, again, that this was still far from a done deal. Even if Sidewalk responded fulsomely and adequately to the concerns that had been raised, the plan still needed to go through the Waterfront Toronto board for approval.

Rarely has such a small parcel of land inspired so much controversy. But in early summer, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even visited the area. So I got on my bike and roamed around Quayside to see what was there now. Not much, really. On the north side of Lake Shore, some drab warehouses, a lighting shop, a shuttered Volvo dealership. A bit further east, at 307 Lake Shore, the former fish plant that Sidewalk turned into its “public workshop”—a wedge-shaped, royal blue and cyan home for prototypes and demos, accented with picnic tables and a learning garden. The southeastern border of the district was still a brownfield and parking lot, lined by the abandoned Victory Soya Mills Silos. Apple, one of Google’s chief competitors, had planted its own nose-thumbing flag right in the latter’s territory. A black-and-white billboard, widely Instagrammed as soon as it went up, loomed above 307 with a picture of an iPhone and this tagline: “We’re in the business of staying out of yours. Privacy. That’s iPhone.” If Apple was hoping to deflate Google’s balloon, this was a pretty cheeky pin.

If you wanted a symbol of what Sidewalk’s critics call its rapacious essence, that was there, too. The Parliament Slip runs along the edge of the brownfield and out to the inner harbour. This is the home of the Island Rogue, a 45-foot ship owned and operated by Pirate Life, which runs an all-ages, buccaneer-themed theatrical cruise. When I was there, a camp group, dozens of fifth-graders it looked like, was getting ready for a voyage, and I watched for a few minutes as they pulled on their eye patches and bandanas. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine Sidewalk employees getting similarly outfitted as they boarded the boat for a tongue-in-cheek team-building exercise.

Maybe Torontonians aren’t being made to walk the innovation gangplank. Maybe Sidewalk really does have the city’s interests at heart. Maybe this is a golden ticket and not a data grab. If there are better ideas out there, or less problematic ones, they need to be heard quickly. Waterfront Toronto was given a 25-year mandate when it was formed, and the clock is ticking. A number of high-profile, made-in-Toronto developments are already in the works—Union Park, the Well, Mirvish Village—and they will reshape the core in compelling, unexpected ways. The lakefront requires the same vision.


This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.