Questions emerge at Sidewalk Labs consultations about 1,500-page proposal

At a public consultation around Sidewalk Labs’ waterfront development proposal on Wednesday night, one message emerged loud and clear: nothing is set in stone — yet.

Dozens gathered at the Radisson Admiral Hotel on Queens Quay West to listen, learn, and voice their concerns about a 1,500-page plan released last month detailing the proposal by the subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc.

Waterfront Toronto partnered with Sidewalk Labs in 2017 to reinvigorate a section of the harbourfront east of the downtown near the Portlands. The company’s vision: a high-tech city-within-a-city, complete with affordable apartments, renewable energy and smart technology.

But the plan, for a 190-acre so-called Idea District, is exponentially larger than the 12-acre proposal the company had been tasked with developing.

And it’s prompted a host of concerns about just how the waterfront development will be governed, what it means for the future of affordable housing and transit, and just who will own the data produced at the Quayside site.

‘We are very concerned’

Thorben Wieditz, an organizer with Block Sidewalk, is among those sounding the alarm about the proposed development.

“We are very concerned,” he said. “We are being asked to comment and leave feedback on 1,500 pages of a document that most members of the public have no time to actually digest and read.”

Among Wieditz’s biggest concerns: the mushrooming scale of the project.

“They have come up with project that no one in Toronto has asked them to come up with,” he said. “It’s very concerning to have a private vendor come in telling us how we should govern ourselves.”

And if a 1,500 page proposal is tough for the public to digest, they’re not alone, says Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer Meg Davis.

“We have not read it all yet, so we’re still digesting,” Davis said, adding it will take until at least late 2019 or even early 2020 before the Waterfront Toronto board makes a decision on whether to approve all or part of the proposal.

‘No green lights so far’

“No green lights so far,” she said. “We are literally just absorbing, listening to the public, talking to our government partners, and then we’ll do our evaluation.”

Sidewalk Labs’ director of public realm development Jesse Shapins said the reason for the lengthy plan comes to down to the fact that it’s a “comprehensive approach to really looking at all facets of an urban development and a neighbourhood.”

Shapins adds that Sidewalk Labs has an office in the waterfront area where members of the public can come and learn more by looking at the model of the proposal that’s been set up there.
And while he knows there are concerns about the project, he says it’s encouraging to see how many people have been attending the consultations, saying Waterfront Toronto is doing “important work” in ensuring the public has a chance to weigh in on the plans.

Philip Chatterton was one such resident.

Chatterton, who lives on Toronto Island, works in the tech industry and is excited about some of the plan.

Big questions loom

But he’s also concerned.

“I’m not hearing things like ‘open source,'” he said. “It’s a lot of ownership around the technology, but not really, ‘How can the community get involved in the technology and helping businesses get involved?'”

The big question, he says, is “Who owns the data?”

That’s something on which Waterfront Toronto board member Coun. Joe Cressy says the city needs to develop its own policy.

“As it relates to creating a new digital framework in smart cities, that’s something we at the city really need to create a governance model around … as opposed to having Sidewalk, a Google affiliate, design it for us,” Cressy said.

“We chose an innovation partner to think differently and come up with new ideas so that’s controversial… but I have full confidence in the city of Toronto to rise to the challenge of evaluating this project and determining what’s in the best interest of the city.”

Sidewalk Labs says they’re open to feedback and the consultations mark the beginning of a long approval process. The next consultation happens Saturday at George Brown College.

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