Everything you need to know about Sidewalk Toronto’s Port Lands proposal

Everything you need to know about Sidewalk Toronto’s Port Lands proposal

After nearly two years of consultations and controversy, Sidewalk Toronto—the Google-affiliated company that contracted with Waterfront Toronto to come up with a plan to convert part of the Port Lands into a high-tech model neighbourhood—has finally released a formal proposal. It’s a beast: a 1,500-page, multi-volume, full-colour epic that’s still surprisingly sparse on detail in a few key areas, like who would pay for what—and, of particular interest to privacy advocates, what types of data would be collected by the neighbourhood’s surfeit of sensors. Here are some key takeaways.

The project would start at Quayside, but wouldn’t end there

The original focus of Waterfront Toronto’s attention was Quayside, a five-hectare plot of land sandwiched between the Gardiner Expressway and the lake, east of Sherbourne Street. Sidewalk’s proposal envisions Quayside as merely a starting point for a mega-neighbourhood called the IDEA District that would eventually extend over 77 hectares throughout the northwestern portion of the Port Lands. Sidewalk’s position is that the extra scale is necessary in order to make the investment in technology and infrastructure pay off, since Quayside alone wouldn’t be able to hold enough residents and businesses to justify the expense.

In an open letter, Waterfront Toronto chairman Stephen Diamond calls this expansionist plan premature. “Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas,” Diamond writes.

A map of Sidewalk Toronto’s proposed project area.
Toronto would get a new and improved Google Canada headquarters out of the deal

In a part of the Port Lands that Sidewalk is calling “Villiers West,” Google Canada would build a new headquarters. The prospect of one of the world’s biggest tech companies putting a major new campus in the city is the kind of thing that is bound to get local politicians excited.

It would all depend on the city finally extending the streetcar network

One sticking point in all of this: Sidewalk says the entire plan hinges on Toronto finally extending its streetcar network to the eastern waterfront. The city has been dragging its feet on this file for a decade, and the project is currently stuck behind a logjam of other infrastructure investments that the city and Queen’s Park consider more urgent. Sidewalk is offering up to $100 million in loans to accelerate construction, but wouldn’t actually pay the bills.

A rendering of Sidewalk’s plan for Villiers West.
A little less than half of the housing in Quayside would be priced below market value

Sidewalk is dangling a number of carrots in front of Toronto politicians, and one of the juiciest is a plan to directly address the city’s affordable housing crisis by building residences that would be made available at discounted rates. The proposal calls for 40 per cent of residences in Quayside to be offered for “below market” prices—although only five per cent would be earmarked for “deep” affordability, defined as 60 per cent or more below market rent.

A rendering of Parliament Plaza, Sidewalk’s proposed public gathering space in Quayside.
There would be a ton of high-tech gizmos

The most intriguing aspect of Sidewalk’s involvement in the Port Lands has always been the prospect that the Google-affiliated company would use the neighbourhood as a testing ground for new technologies. The proposal contains some specific examples of what those technologies would look like. Some of the more notable suggestions include:

• An “outdoor comfort system” that would use a network of sensor-equipped devices to do things like block rain and provide shade.

• A “mobility management system” that would use sensors to monitor traffic throughout the neighbourhood and use that data to do things like adjust traffic signals and change the price of parking.

• An energy management system that would monitor electricity usage and room occupancy throughout the neighbourhood and make adjustments to reduce energy consumption.

• A ubiquitous high-speed internet network that would be available throughout the neighbourhood.

• Tall buildings made of “mass timber,” a type of wood construction material that Sidewalk thinks is more environmentally friendly than steel.

• “Pay-as-you-throw” garbage chutes that would charge residents for their waste, which Sidewalk thinks would divert trash from landfills.

None of this would be free of charge

The proposal contains a breakdown of the various ways the company expects to profit from this deal. Sidewalk expects to be the lead developer in Quayside and Villiers West, meaning it would reap profits from rents and condo sales. It would resell any technologies it creates for use in those areas to other real estate developers and other cities. It would earn interest on any loans made to the city or other government partners. It would make money by investing in a timber factory to supply eco-friendly wood for use in the neighbourhood’s construction. On top of all that, Sidewalk also expects to be paid for its advisory services, and it expects to receive a final payment at the conclusion of the project, as long as certain growth targets are met.

The proposal suggests that Sidewalk is expecting to buy development land from the city at a discount, to make up for the fact that it will have to sacrifice some potential profits in order to meet Waterfront Toronto’s policy goals. The city may lose out on some money because of that. And Sidewalk is expecting the city to spend money from development charges (fees paid by developers to the city) on some of the high-tech features mentioned previously. The overall message seems to be that Toronto needs to be prepared to pay up.

Theoretically, the city would earn a return on its investment by collecting property taxes from businesses and residences in the area, but it’s unclear whether all the techy bells and whistles would increase that return. Sidewalk is also offering Toronto a small cut of the proceeds from the sales of certain tech developed and tested in the Port Lands.

And we still don’t know all the privacy implications

All of these high-tech services would require allowing Sidewalk to collect unprecedented amounts of data about the movement of people and vehicles in the Port Lands area. Privacy concerns have been one of the company’s biggest stumbling blocks to date.

In its proposal, Sidewalk suggests that data collection be overseen by an “Urban Data Trust,” a public entity that would set rules for data collection in the neighbourhood and enforce them, and the proposal also suggests an elaborate process for ensuring that sensitive data doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. But, in his open letter, Waterfront Toronto chairman Stephen Diamond says he’s still not satisfied. “Sidewalk Labs has initial proposals relating to data collection, data use, and digital governance,” he writes. “We will require additional information to establish whether they are in compliance with applicable laws and respect Waterfront Toronto’s digital governance principles.”