Crit­i­cism mounts about Google-af­fil­i­ated de­vel­oper’s ‘smart city’ project in Toronto

Vancouver Sun - - FINANCIAL POST - JAMES MCLEOD Fi­nan­cial Post jm­cleod@na­tion­al­ Twit­­spm­cleod

Wa­ter­front Toronto says it’s fix­ing a sit­u­a­tion that led to dozens of peo­ple be­ing turned away from up­com­ing pub­lic meet­ings on the con­tentious Side­walk Toronto project.

For more than a week, res­i­dents who wanted to reg­is­ter for the con­sul­ta­tions on Aug. 14 and 15 re­ceived a mes­sage say­ing that the event was “sold out” and they could only add their name to a wait­ing list.

“You don’t have to reg­is­ter for pub­lic meet­ings,” said open gov­ern­ment ad­vo­cate Bianca Wylie, who is a critic of the project. “This would be the prime time to get it right at a pub­lic meet­ing, and in­stead of get­ting it right at a pub­lic meet­ing, peo­ple can’t at­tend the pub­lic meet­ing.”

New York-based Side­walk Labs — owned by Al­pha­bet Inc., Google’s par­ent com­pany — is work­ing on a mas­ter plan to de­velop Quay­side, a pocket of land on Toronto’s wa­ter­front east of down­town. The com­pany was cho­sen for the de­vel­op­ment project by Wa­ter­front Toronto, a fed­eral, provin­cial, mu­nic­i­pal part­ner­ship with a man­date to de­velop the city’s lakeshore.

The time­line for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion has been de­layed and crit­i­cism of the project has been mount­ing. The mid­sum­mer meet­ings are shap­ing up to be a crit­i­cal in­flec­tion point for the project, which has raised a num­ber of con­cerns over data se­cu­rity and trans­parency.

If com­pleted, Quay­side would be a test­ing ground for a lot of “smart city” ideas, from in­tel­li­gent traf­fic lights to un­der­ground tun­nels where ro­bots trans­port freight and garbage, leav­ing the roads free for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles and pedes­tri­ans.

Sen­sors will likely link all these sys­tems and col­lect data to make the neigh­bour­hood run more smoothly.

All these plans are still a work in progress, with Side­walk Labs con­duct­ing a num­ber of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions, but crit­ics say those meet­ings feel more like a pub­lic re­la­tions ex­er­cise, with a lot of flashy tech­nol­ogy and pretty con­cept draw­ings, but not a lot of se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of hard is­sues.

Or­ga­niz­ers planned the Au­gust meet­ings at the project’s head­quar­ters, which is a much smaller venue than pre­vi­ous ses­sions. The idea was to use that lo­ca­tion to demon­strate pro­to­types for tech­nol­ogy that could even­tu­ally be part of the project.

Af­ter the Fi­nan­cial Post in­quired about the is­sue, Wa­ter­front Toronto said they’re re­ar­rang­ing space so every­one on the wait­ing list can at­tend.

It’s been a rough few months for the Side­walk Toronto project.

The Au­gust pub­lic meet­ing was orig­i­nally sup­posed to hap­pen in July, and that was sup­posed to be the first op­por­tu­nity for the pub­lic to see “ini­tial sketches” of the de­vel­op­ment plan. But in June the com­pany an­nounced that it was de­lay­ing the process, which will push the mas­ter plan de­vel­op­ment process into early 2019.

That, com­bined with the fact that a key plan­ning agree­ment was kept se­cret un­til last month, have prompted crit­i­cism.

Meg Davis, chief de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer for Wa­ter­front Toronto, said the project is in good shape.

“I’m very fa­mil­iar with the project, and I don’t be­lieve it’s in trou­ble,” Davis said. “We had a unan­i­mous vote at our board to go ahead with the plan de­vel­op­ment agree­ment; the board was very com­pli­men­tary to the work that had been done.”

But that “unan­i­mous” Wa­ter­front Toronto vote came as board mem­ber and real es­tate de­vel­oper Julie Di Lorenzo re­signed in protest over how the project was pro­ceed­ing.

Di Lorenzo said she does not be­lieve that the deal, as it’s struc­tured now, is good for the city be­cause it gives too much con­trol to Side­walk Labs.

In an email to the Fi­nan­cial Post, Di Lorenzo said it’s en­cour­ag­ing that Wa­ter­front Toronto pub­licly re­leased the plan de­vel­op­ment agree­ment and pre­vi­ous frame­work. But she said the city would be bet­ter served by chang­ing the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship with Side­walk Labs.

“The best sce­nario in my mind would be that (Wa­ter­front Toronto) en­ter into sim­ple con­sult­ing con­tracts with Side­walk and other sup­pli­ers di­rectly in order to main­tain in­de­pen­dence,” Di Lorenzo said in a state­ment.

Wylie said her con­cerns about the project are in a sim­i­lar vein. Fun­da­men­tally, she said peo­ple should be ask­ing whether a pri­vate com­pany should be do­ing this sort of de­vel­op­ment, or if this should be led by the gov­ern­ment. This comes with ques­tions of who owns the data col­lected, and how it can be used for profit or for pub­lic good.

A lot of the con­tro­versy thus far has also fo­cused on pri­vacy, and whether the Google af­fil­i­ated com­pany will use data col­lected in the Quay­side dis­trict for ad­ver­tis­ing, or some other ne­far­i­ous pur­poses, de­spite cat­e­gor­i­cal as­sur­ances to the con­trary.

Micah Lasher, head of pol­icy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Side­walk Labs, said that peo­ple tend to fo­cus on the hand­ful of pub­lic round­table ses­sions, but re­ally the con­sul­ta­tions on the project are much broader than that.

He pointed out that there are ex­pert ad­vi­sory pan­els, a fel­low­ship pro­gram, weekend open house ses­sions at the Lakeshore Boule­vard head­quar­ters, and more.

“For some folks who don’t want to see this project re­al­ized, we will be sub­ject to crit­i­cism no mat­ter what we do,” Lasher said.

“We think it is worth be­ing crit­i­cized, if that is what comes with hav­ing an in­ven­tive, multi-faceted pub­lic en­gage­ment process. If some peo­ple are go­ing to call that a pub­lic re­la­tions ex­er­cise, so be it.”

For some folks who don’t want to see this project re­al­ized, we will be sub­ject to crit­i­cism no mat­ter what we do.


New York-based Side­walk Labs, which is owned by Google’s par­ent Al­pha­bet, is hold­ing pub­lic meet­ings at its Toronto unit’s 307 build­ing to re­veal “ini­tial sketches” of its con­tro­ver­sial plans for its Quay­side project in the city’s wa­ter­front...

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