With the final public consultation meeting scheduled for the Sidewalk Labs smart-city project less than two weeks away, government agency Waterfront Toronto is indicating that it wants to go ahead with the project, and that it’s ready to put hundreds of millions of dollars behind some of the key proposals.
On Tuesday, the agency released a so-called “discussion guide” aimed at distilling the thousands of pages of documents generated by the complex and controversial project down to an easier-to-digest subset of proposed “solutions.”
Of the 160 proposals it identifies, it said it supported 144 and that it was willing to fund 11 directly — including modular heated pavement and pneumatic tubes for carrying garbage out of buildings.
Waterfront Toronto chief executive George Zecarac also said he expects to put most of the $590 million generated by selling the land for the proposed development back into affordable housing and other services for the new neighbourhood.
It has been nearly three years since Waterfront Toronto first issued a request for proposals to come up with an innovative plan to develop Quayside, a 12-acre plot of land on the city’s lakeshore. Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google owned by Alphabet Inc., was selected to come up with a master plan.
Last June, Sidewalk Labs delivered a sprawling 1,500 page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) which proposed expanding the project to develop 190 acres of land, significantly subsidized by Waterfront Toronto.
Waterfront Toronto board chairman Stephen Diamond immediately signalled that major parts of the Sidewalk Labs MIDP were non-starters, and over the summer and fall of 2019, the two sides negotiated to resolve the sticking points.
After those issues were resolved, Waterfront Toronto staff set about evaluating what was left of the MIDP.
Now, Waterfront Toronto has scheduled two public meetings on Feb. 29 giving residents one final chance to weigh in, before the board votes on whether to green-light the project in May. Officials were careful to say that further consultation meetings might be scheduled, and the City of Toronto has indicated that it plans on doing its own independent consultation and evaluation process.
But Waterfront Toronto staff are already recommending that the agency proceed with detailed negotiations with Sidewalk Labs to flesh out the details of a firm innovation plan.
On May 20 the Waterfront Toronto board will vote on whether to proceed with a rough sketch of the project, based on the evaluation and negotiation done to date; then by the end of the year, the board will vote on a final negotiated deal for the development. Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns the Financial Post, is a member of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto.
At this stage, though, even the items that Waterfront Toronto doesn’t support aren’t completely off the table.
For example, the idea for flexible “building raincoats” to create awnings during inclement weather was rejected, but staff at Waterfront Toronto said that Sidewalk Labs could tweak the proposal later to bring it back.
On Tuesday, Waterfront Toronto also released a report by an “evaluation committee” which broadly concluded that Waterfront Toronto staff has been doing a good job of evaluating the proposals.
“The Evaluation Committee has reviewed an analysis of how the 160 solutions proposed in the MIDP have been categorized, indicating the level of support that Waterfront Toronto should lend to each individual solution, and supports the results of that analysis,” the report says.
The committee is made up of three senior executives at Waterfront Toronto, along with a senior consultant on cities from KPMG, another consultant from N.Barry Lyon Consultants, and Sheldon Levy, former president of Ryerson University.
The evaluation committee also said that people should think more about the downside of the project being killed, and not just focus on the potential downsides associated with the project going ahead.
“An equal focus should be placed on the cost of losing the opportunity this project presents as the risk of proceeding into areas of uncertainty.
Innovation and risk go hand in hand, and it is important to not let one overpower the other without appropriate analysis and reasoning,” the report says.
The Sidewalk Labs project has been mired in controversy for the past three years, with opponents saying that the project will undermine privacy and give a private company too much power to develop an entire neighbourhood.
Email: jmcleod@nationalpost.com | Twitter: jamespmcleod