Sidewalk Labs: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or a brazen corporate highjack?

Toronto harbour
© Sidewalk Labs

The proposal for redeveloping Toronto's waterfront into a green, sustainable, urban tech hub is controversial.

About 20 years ago my partner Jon Harstone and I won a proposal call from the City of Toronto to build housing for the homeless squatter community that was living on what is now the site of the proposed Sidewalk Labs development on the waterfront. We didn’t know at the time that it was all a sham, that the City didn’t really want the housing, even though it was all prefab, portable and moveable. We sat at the end of a giant boardroom table as different city departments, one after another, made incredible and impossible demands or simply said it wouldn’t work.

At the end we didn’t even pick up our materials; we just abandoned them and the project. We walked away, concluding that you can’t do business with these people. Two weeks later the police and the bulldozers moved in, cleared out the squatter community and put up a big fence around the property that is there to this day.

Now we have Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, which won the proposal call from Waterfront Toronto to develop these same lands, and which just dropped a 1,500-page document titled Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth. This proposal is huge, way beyond their original mandate to develop 12 acres, but proposes expanding into 20 acres of adjoining land and even further, into an “IDEA district” of 190 acres.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus wonders, “At what point did we decide to turn over some of the most valuable real estate in all of North America to the creation of a company town?”

Portlands as they used to beToronto port lands as they used to be/Public Domain

Actually, this land is all toxic fill, the emptying of a hundred years' worth of coal ash out of the city’s furnaces, topped and mixed with fuel oil leaking from the storage tanks that were built on top. When I did a soil test 20 years ago, you could take the liquid that came out of the borehole and almost put it in your gas tank and drive away. It has no transit connections, it is cut off from the city by an elevated highway, it has been abandoned forever and it has been in desperate need of a vision for renewal.

Keating Channel© Keating Channel/ Sidewalk Labs

And what a vision for renewal this is. All built out of wood and "inspired by the global 'Passive House movement," the buildings would reduce carbon emissions by 89 percent compared to the current city average. It would have a district energy system that ran on heat pumps and was fossil-fuel free, along with "an advanced power grid that uses solar energy, battery storage, and real-time energy pricing to reduce reliance on the main power grid during periods of peak demand." Three-quarters of all transportation would be transit, walking or cycling, with the balance, at some point, in ride/hail self-driving cars.

Another set of benefits would come from freight and management innovations. To help keep trucks off local streets, Sidewalk Labs plans to create a logistics hub connected to neighbourhood buildings through underground delivery tunnels.

Parliament Street© Sidewalk Labs

The housing would have a big affordable component. They would promote "the digital conditions that enable a wide array of third parties to create countless new services designed to improve urban life." Oh, and it would all create 44,000 jobs and $14.2 billion in annual economic impact.

But this is, after all, Toronto. Jordan Pearson of Vice calls the project a "democracy grenade." Everyone is lining up around that boardroom table, getting ready with their objections. The City Councillor calls it a "land grab." #blocksidewalk, a group of activists fighting the project, writes in a press release:

For #BlockSidewalk, the story today should be about Sidewalk Labs, aka Google's efforts at an aggressive corporate takeover of public land, public process, public services and public funds through a multi-million-dollar campaign of manipulation and obfuscation. This project was never about a small 12-acre site on Toronto's waterfront, and the plan Sidewalk Labs has presented us with is proof of that. This is about Google trying to get access to hundreds of acres of Toronto's prime waterfront public land. This is as much about privatization and corporate control as it is about privacy.

Bianca Wylie of #blocksidewalk is very effective in her criticism of the project and of Sidewalk, calling it A Brazen and Ongoing Corporate Hijack of Democratic Process. She writes in about the way they have handled it, and the public response:

Treating people like they’re stupid. Stupid for having questions about data and tech, stupid for not having unquestioning faith. Stupid for connecting the company to Google. Stupid for challenging the pace of the work. Stupid for not seeing how this will somehow do magic innovation things for our country. Stupid for echoing concerns raised globally by people that deeply understand corporate influence on city governance, from day one.

Innovation campus© Innovation Campus/ Sidewalk Labs

Wylie is deeply persuasive and I find every word she writes troubling. But I am still conflicted; there is so much to admire in the vision. Richard Florida notes that “urban tech” is a huge growth area, and Sidewalk “amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catalyze our leadership in this field. If Sidewalk Labs were to leave Toronto, what else here could replace it?”

In urban development, as in life, nothing is ever truly assured. There are likely to be plenty of bumps along the way. Continuing concerns about privacy and the future and democratic governance of our waterfront are paramount and must be effectively addressed. But that should not cloud the fact that Sidewalk Labs represents a key element in vaulting our city and the region to a position of world leadership in one of the 21st century’s most important high-tech industries.

I have not written much about this project because I know that I am very much alone here, almost everyone I know is against it.

But I have been looking at this land since I was a child, when it was all going to be a giant shipping container port. My dad, a pioneer in the industry, said they were nuts, that container ships would never come into the Great Lakes in serious numbers, that containers would travel by rail on a “land bridge”. He was right. Then again there was that year I spent trying to build portable prefab housing on it. It has been decade after decade of missed opportunity and wasted money. Richard Florida is right; there are problems to be resolved, but the opportunity is too good to miss. But I can see what’s coming; from the Globe and Mail:

“It’s totally up to the government to decide, but we were very clear from the beginning that we thought greater scale would be necessary,” Sidewalk Labs chief executive officer Dan Doctoroff said in an interview at the company’s Toronto headquarters. But he added that if some parts of its plan, such as developing western Villiers Island, were not approved, Sidewalk would reconsider staying in Toronto: “Clearly, the project becomes less appealing.”

I have seen this movie before. Everyone around that boardroom table is going to list all their objections, and Doctoroff is going to get up and walk away. Because this is Toronto.

Sidewalk Labs: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or a brazen corporate highjack?
The proposal for redeveloping Toronto's waterfront into a green, sustainable, urban tech hub is controversial.

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