Sidewalk Labs Releases Its Vision for Toronto's Waterfront

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©. Snøhetta

It is a wonderful wooden and digital world, but will it ever happen?

It is hard to write about architecture without understanding context, and with the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Toronto's waterfront, it is fraught with context and complexity. There are complex politics, questions about privacy and so much more. Recently it was also revealed that they want a piece of the action on the rest of the eastern waterfront, "... a share in the uptick in land value on the entire geography ... a share of developer charges and incremental tax revenue on all land.”

overview sidewalk labs

© Sidewalk LabsSidewalk released a major project update for public review, with some very pretty drawings including the ones shown here. There are many levels of government involved, a new Premier of Ontario who wanted to put a mall and a Ferris wheel on this site when he was at city council, and hearings starting in Ottawa. Nobody should be surprised if the whole thing blows up and goes the way of Amazon in New York, when City politicians like Joe Cressy are saying things like:

We have set out an objective to transform 12 acres of publicly owned real estate into a livable, affordable, sustainable neighbourhood. That needs to be done in a way that is not only appropriate but financed in a way that is in the public interest, not in the most convenient manner possible...We have the absolute right as the city and Waterfront Toronto to say no if we aren’t satisfied with the deal.”

press download package

© Snøhetta

Bianca Wylie of Spacing notes that the entire process is screwy.

According to University of Toronto criminologist and urban law expert Mariana Valverde, the development of this plan falls short of the norms and laws used by world-leading smart cities. “In the Toronto case, the tail is wagging the dog in a way that European cities would consider completely illegitimate and dysfunctional.”

Others do not agree. Planner Ken Greenberg wrote last summer:

The early designs are promising: safer streets that make more room for people, bicycles and public transit, and that can change based on traffic. Public spaces that are flexible and block the wind, rain and snow so they can be used more of the year. Buildings made of wood that rise as high as 40 storeys, helping remove carbon from the atmosphere instead of creating it, like concrete and steel do.

Writing in The Star this morning, Sidewalk CEO Daniel Doctoroff defends the project and the process.

These issues are complex and sometimes messy. So are cities — it’s what we love about them. We came to Toronto because it is the most inclusive city in the world, determined to find new solutions to the challenges of growth in order to that keep it that way. We have only become more committed to developing those solutions in collaboration with Waterfront Toronto, governments, and you.
Google campus

© Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio

There is a lot to like about the designs from a sustainability point of view. They want to build it out of mass timber, suggesting that this "would accelerate step-change growth in the forestry, design and timber manufacturing industries." Everything would have Cradle to Cradle certification. There would be smart waste management, smart water systems and a "thermal grid" using systems such as waste heat and geothermal (although being right on the harbour, water sourced heat pumps are probably what they mean).

Courtyard interior

© Heatherwick Studios

On the other hand, I am not convinced at all about the buildings, designed by Snøhetta and Thomas Heatherwick. If you look at old wood buildings on waterfronts from 150 years ago to new ones designed by Waugh Thistleton or Michael Green, the wood is on the inside and the exterior is protected by brick or metal or glass, which are weatherproof and non-combustible materials.

Building exterior

© Heatherwick Studios

And what is Heatherwick doing here? All these curvy exposed wood balconies and structures. Anyone who ever owned a wood boat on the Toronto waterfront knows why they are all fiberglass now, the maintenance of exposed wood is non-stop. No doubt there are better sealants today than there were when I was a kid, but so far as I can tell, nobody is building like this anywhere. (The Brock Tower in British Columbia is clad in wood but it is the surface of a non-structural prefabricated panel, and the Dutch have built bridges out of Accoya wood, a treatment at the molecular level)

Innovation Zone

© Heatherwick Studios

Sidewalk says it wants a "100% mass timber program" but perhaps I have seen too much of Heatherwick and am not convinced by him. They are beautiful speculations, but perhaps Sidewalk should hire an architect or give it all to Snøhetta.

I sincerely hope that Sidewalk, Waterfront Toronto and all these levels of government don't blow this wonderful opportunity. It could be a great model of sustainable mixed use development for the modern world. And of course, I love wood construction. I just wonder if they aren't pushing the envelope a bit too far here.