Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Google sibling company Sidewalk Labs has revealed its master plan for the controversial Quayside waterfront development—and it’s a lot bigger.
What happens when a group of high-profile urban thinkers, capitalized by the vast wealth of a tech goliath, snags a parcel of public waterfront in a major North American city as a sandbox for their ideas? One outcome just became clearer.
Sidewalk Labs, the smart-city startup from Google parent company Alphabet, has released its master innovation and development plan to turn a sizable swath of Toronto’s Lake Ontario shoreline into “the most innovative district in the entire world,” its chief executive, Dan Doctoroff, said in a press call on Monday. After more than a year and a half of controversial public engagement in Toronto, the 1,524-page proposal details numerous facets of a high-tech urban utopia that Sidewalk Labs would oversee as a developer.
“What’s never been done before is putting everything together in one place,” Doctoroff said. “We’re showing what is actually possible but also feasible where you can combine innovations across different systems.”
For example, on the housing front, a collection of new mixed-use buildings, up to 30 stories tall, would be built at a cost of $3.9 billion, using mass timber and modular components constructed at a local factory owned by Sidewalk Labs. The high-rises would add thousands of units to Toronto’s housing stock—40 percent of them affordable, Sidewalk says—and 35 percent faster than normal construction time.
To provide mobility, a $1.2 billion light-rail extension, financed through land-value capture, would connect the new neighborhood to mass transit even before residents move in. Snow-melting heated pavement would keep the streets clear for cyclists, pedestrians, and self-driving “delivery dollies” through the Canadian winter. The district is expected to be “climate positive”—i.e., netting a sub-zero carbon footprint.
And it would be heavily connected, monitored, and self-regulating: Wifi would be publicly available, and sensors throughout the neighborhood would collect data about energy consumption, building use, and traffic patterns, among other urban fluctuations, which a software platform would analyze and manage. The raw information would be anonymized and held in a third-party “data trust,” and personal parts would never be sold to third-party vendors or disclosed without some form of consent.
Eric Jaffe, the editorial director of Sidewalk Labs (also a former CityLab staffer), was largely responsible for writing the massive proposal. He hopes that other cities around the world will seize on some of its ideas once they’re demonstrated in Toronto. Speedy, factory-built housing is one example: “When you can accomplish that in one place, you make it easier for developers to complete their projects reliably, on time, and at the same number you started with,” he told CityLab. “From that, another city can say, ‘We’re going to ask more of you for this.’”
But first, government officials must scrutinize and approve Sidewalk Labs’ master plan—or not. This promises to be a contentious process: Some major elements of the project have shifted over time, and so have the targets of the project’s detractors.
When Waterfront Toronto, the government-appointed nonprofit developer that stewards 800 acres of Toronto’s eastern shore, chose Sidewalk Labs to plan a “smart” development for a 12-acre parcel known as Quayside in late 2017, the most controversial part of the plan was the notion that a Google sister company planned to harvest data in public space. Over time, Sidewalk Labs was criticized for its opacity about how it would use the data, and who would control it; its idea of the third-party ”data trust” did not fully allay concerns among privacy advocates, either. Indeed, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is now suing the Canadian government to halt the development.
Now, the potential for scope creep may be an even bigger sticking point. Sidewalk Labs has said from the start that it hoped to redevelop the entire waterfront, but its original agreement with officials was limited to the small Quayside lot. In February, however, leaked documents obtained by the Toronto Star showed that Sidewalk Labs was devising plans to develop about 350 acres surrounding that parcel, and that it would seek profit through property taxes and development fees that would normally be directed to city coffers. The Star’s report also revealed the company’s plans to advocate and finance a light-rail extension.
These intentions are now formally presented in the master plan, with the substantially larger development area labeled the “IDEA District.” Part of it would include a new Google headquarters on Villiers Island; in other sections, Sidewalk Labs proposes to offer planning, design, and technical implementation services, instead of acting as lead real estate developer. “It’s hard for government to have all of that expertise,” Doctoroff said on Monday. Sidewalk Labs estimates that this district would generate 44,000 direct jobs and $14.2 billion in yearly economic impact by 2040.
Waterfront Toronto’s chairman, Stephen Diamond, has already established some distance from the proposal, writing in an open letter on Monday that his agency “did not co-create it.” Diamond called the idea of an enlarged IDEA District “premature,” and listed it among other issues that still need to be ironed out, including Sidewalk Labs’ still-uncertain data plans and its many proposals that would require “new roles for public administrators, changes to regulations, and government investment.”
Such concerns faintly echo those raised more pointedly by activists who criticize the Sidewalk Labs project as a corporate takeover of what should be a democratic, government-led process. Some Torontonians are determined to sidetrack Sidewalk Labs, inspired by the grassroots movement that convinced Amazon to cancel its plans to build a second headquarters in Queens. “This is about Google trying to get access to hundreds of acres of Toronto’s prime waterfront public land,” an opposition group called Block Sidewalk stated following the master plan’s release. “This is as much about privatization and corporate control as it is about privacy.”
Now it is up to Waterfront Toronto and its overseers to review the proposal. In his press call, Doctoroff said he welcomed whatever discussion will come from it; differences of opinion are part of the process of working out a complex arrangement with a government body. “We expect to work out more issues,” he said. “It will be their decision to make.”