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Waterfront Toronto outlines key concerns as Sidewalk Labs releases draft plan

HANDOUT/Sidewalk Labs

The draft plan for a high-tech community along Toronto’s Waterfront has been released by Google sister company Sidewalk Labs amid growing criticism over privacy and security in the proposed smart neighbourhood.

The community is billed as a “neighbourhood of the future” with a focus on sustainability, affordability, and ease of transportation. Sidewalk says the development will create an estimated 44,000 jobs and $4.3 billion in annual taxes from 21,000 residents.

Sidewalk hopes to achieve nothing less than to improve everything about how people work and live, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at a media presentation Monday.

“Our proposal aims to do something extraordinary on Toronto’s eastern waterfront – create a new model of inclusive growth, where cutting-edge technology and forward-thinking urban design combine to achieve an ambitious improvement in every aspect of the way we live.”

Sidewalk’s proposal sets out detailed plans for a residential-focused 4.8-hectare Quayside site, but also goes much farther to envision the foundations of a 77-hectare eastern waterfront district along similar design ideals.

Waterfront Toronto has outlined their four early concerns with the project as Sidewalk Labs just weeks after pushing back a vote on whether to move forward with the contentious project.

The delay in the vote will allow them to complete a thorough examination of the 1500-page report released on Monday by Sidewalk Labs. Chair of the Board Steve Diamond tells CityNews the vote will likely happen by the end of the year.

Scale of the project

The Master Innovation and Development Plan outlines an “IDEA district” than expands the community further than just the Quayside area. Waterfront Toronto has made it clear to Sidewalk Labs must first see how Quayside turns out before expanding outside that area. They add they would also need the full support and collaboration with the City of Toronto in order to expand the smart community.

Diamond said “We believe there should be acceptance of what’s going on from the public on Quayside first. This is a large and innovative project, which we are supportive of, but let’s see whether it’s successful before we make commitments for such a large area of land.”

Micah Lasher, Head of Policy and Communications for Sidewalk Labs says this expanded area, called the IDEA district, would be entirely at the discretion of the government down the road and is not a condition of the Quayside project being built.

“The IDEA district would basically take those idea and through a government-run administrator and district expand the policies and innovation and guidelines to a broader area, constituting about a third of the eastern waterfront that would be developed by others, We would not be the developers,” said Lasher. “The ideas that are proven out at Quayside would help spur an innovative, more sustainable, affordable kind of development led by others, across this somewhat broader piece of the eastern waterfront.”

Who will develop Quayside?

In the Master Innovation and Development Plan, it is proposed that Sidewalks Lab will be the lead developer of the Quayside project. However, Waterfront Toronto says that was not the case in the initial Plan Development Agreement from last October.

Waterfront Toronto says if the plan were to move forward, there would be “a competitive, public procurement process for a developer(s) to partner with Sidewalk Labs.”

“Sidewalk Labs proposes to lead this development, working with local partners, and take the risk of proving the market viability of a proposed development model that incorporates urban innovations to achieve ambitious quality-of-life objectives,” reads the plan.

Transit commitments

Sidewalk Labs has proposed the extension of public transit to Quayside before “the development, new roles for public administrators, changes to regulations, and government investment.” Waterfront Toronto says this raises important implementation concerns and are also commitments they cannot make.

Diamond tells CityNews that they are supportive of getting the LRT building to the Waterfront, but they have concerns about the rhetoric in the plan surrounding transit.

“They have clearly indicated that if transit is not funded by the time they want to go ahead then they aren’t interested in the project. And we find that of concern because we are going through a huge public process and if they are going to pull the plug on us before that’s committed then that leaves us in a very precarious position.”

Head of Urban Systems Rohit Aggarwala says the future of this part of the city depends on transit access so they have proposed an “innovative approach,” to funding the LRT down to the waterfront.

He said for the section of the LRT within the eastern waterfront, it could be funded through bonds backed by the future property taxes to build the streetcar expansion and reiterated transit would not be funded by Sidewalk Labs.

The idea behind self-financing is to impose a future charge on real-estate value, and borrow in the present against that stream of future funds to pay for part of the cost of construction of the transit system,” reads the plan.

Data collection and Privacy concerns

Much of the criticism surrounding the Quayside project is over data collection and the privacy and security concerns that follow. Sidewalk Labs has released its initial proposals for data collection, use and digital governance, but Waterfront Toronto says they need more information to establish they are in compliance with applicable laws and respect their principals.

“We need a lot more information from Sidewalk about what they are proposing. We need a lot of public input on where we are going and how it is going to be produced before we can make any firm decisions that this is going to work for the public in terms of the issue of data and privacy,” said Diamond.

“How much data is going to be collected? Whose going to own that data? Where is it going to be used,” are some of the questions Waterfront Toronto is asking of Sidewalk Labs.

“These are all very complex and legitimate issues. The debate is very healthy, but we do need to resolve them. We think we need to resolve them first on Quayside,” said Diamond.

“We heard serious concerns about privacy, boy, did we hear concerns about privacy,” said CEO Dan Doctoroff on Sidewalk’s months of public consultations.

Sidewalk Labs has recommended that an independent, government sanctioned trust be established to set guidelines and oversee data collection, while also committing not to sell personal information or use it for advertising.

General Counsel Alyssa Harvey Dawson says this trust would be made of at least five people from the community, public sector along with privacy and data governance experts.

“It will be a mix of people from the community and from the government who have a vested interest in making sure the public interest is actually served,” said Dawson.

Dawson adds they would not be selling any data to third-party companies and says they have no plans to use facial recognition software.

When asked whether he was concerned whether Sidewalk Labs could potentially pull out of the project, Diamond said he hopes they would be able to reach an accommodation.

“That’s our first line, to try and reach an accommodation with sidewalk. But at the end of the day, if they decide they can’t live with it … then it’s likely what’s in the best interest for the city of Toronto for the future.”