SIDEWALK SHOWS CRACKS
Criticism mounts about Google-affiliated developer’s ‘smart city’ project in Toronto
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.