Sidewalk Labs will be good for Toronto
TORONTO: The Sidewalk Labs proposal has laid a gauntlet down for Toronto. Does the city want to reach its potential as a world leader and walk the smart-city talk or eventually wither in relative mediocrity?
Let’s start by explaining what Sidewalk Labs is: it’s a developer and sister company of Google that was chosen in 2017 by Waterfront Toronto to develop a 12-acre, smart-city site at downtown Toronto’s eastern waterfront called Quayside. The new community would include a mix of housing types (including tall wood construction), financing for light-rail transit, and walkable, bicycle-friendly streets. More recently, Sidewalk Labs expressed interest in designing a 190-acre “IDEA district” – Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration district – which could include a new Canadian headquarters for Google and an $80-million pre-fabricated construction manufacturing hub to build its mass-timber neighbourhood.
Funny how some folks in the media have said “traditional developers” have no reason to like this plan – representing more than 200 “traditional” builder/developers in the GTA, let me say that this is rubbish. We’re all looking to the City of Toronto to lead the way in allowing innovation in construction: the IDEA district could be the beacon of light that shines a path for future residential development.
After all, Sidewalk is led by CEO Dan Doctoroff, the mind behind New York City’s acclaimed Hudson Yard redevelopment.
Action on Toronto’s eastern waterfront – potentially the largest redevelopment project in North America, if it gets going – hasn’t been promising in terms of the pace at which things get done in Toronto. Sadly, fear of change has been the order of the day. A manageable concern over data collection of people carrying smartphones who walk in the future developed area has become a bogeyman for the Sidewalk proposal. Ironically, that same data is already being harvested in massive quantities by each and every person with a smartphone (which is now just about everybody).
The scope of the plan is enormous – an estimated 93,000 jobs and $4 billion in annual tax revenue by 2040. The creativity is stunning. The capacity to actually do it is real. And no one else has an idea that comes close to it.
Yet the handwringing started again with concerns that it is premature and overreaching. Given the years little has happened and the urgent need for housing, it is hardly a premature proposal. And with Toronto’s population growing by at least 77,000 people last year, according to Mayor John Tory, we need to plan now about housing our future residents.
If Toronto fails to pull the trigger on this deal, it will be said that Canada’s economic engine can’t play in the big leagues. (Given our lack of a functioning regional transit system and working presto card service, hallmarks of other leading cities, some would already say Toronto is not a world-class city.)
My question is this: will this new political football be fumbled, leading the star player to leave town, as our housing situation worsens?
Toronto will survive because it occupies one of the best pieces of real estate on the planet. We’re lucky.
But if we don’t take any risks, the city won’t rise to represent the future of urbanism, or become a leading municipality nurtured by innovative, motivated city builders with knowledge, skills and experience that are the envy of the world.
We need to have the courage to take the first steps to get there. The Sidewalk proposal deserves a hard look. Even many “traditional” builder/developers think so.