Q&A: Stephen Diamond, the new chair of Waterfront Toronto, on managing the Sidewalk Labs file

Q&A: Stephen Diamond, the new chair of Waterfront Toronto, on managing the Sidewalk Labs file

He says Toronto has a duty to listen to new city-building ideas

Your gig as Waterfront Toronto chair just started, which means you preside over the organization that controls what happens on the lakeshore. So presumably you’ve got this messy Sidewalk Labs situation all figured out?
Yeah, right—all sorted. I’ve been on the job for only a few weeks so far. It’s not a job I put my hand up for, but it’s definitely an exciting one.

If you didn’t apply for the position, how did you get it?
I was approached by all three levels of government, which is the first time that’s happened at Waterfront. I was honoured. I saw it as a chance to give back to the city and province that I love.

I’m not sure all three levels of government have ever agreed on anything. What’s your secret?
Maybe they chose me because they knew nobody else would do it! Really though, I’ve been a private developer for the past decade—I’m CEO at DiamondCorp— and before that I was a partner at McCarthys, and I think I’ve gained a reputation for being thoughtful and for looking out for the public interest.

On a scale of Keesmaat to Ford, how would you describe your approach to city building?
I would call myself an idealistic pragmatist. I’m a consensus builder. I think that’s going to be very important with the controversy around Sidewalk Labs.

What do you make of Sidewalk’s project?
I like the potential to develop environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods and affordable housing, to limit car use and improve mobility for pedestrians and cyclists. As one of the fastest-growing cities in North America, it’s incumbent upon us to explore new initiatives, even if they’re controversial.

Where are we in the Sidewalk process?
A lot of people think Toronto has already sold its soul to big tech. We’ve entered into an agreement that permits Sidewalk to forward a proposal. That’s it. Once that proposal comes forward, there will be an extensive consultation and evaluation process to determine whether or not the project is in the public’s interest. If it’s not, it won’t happen.

Does the buck stop with you?
It stops with the board. I’m the chair, but that’s just one vote. Plus, all three government partners must sign off next steps, whatever they are.

I’m glad you brought privacy up.
It’s my understanding that Sidewalk is not looking for personal information. Road sensors would record cyclists, pedestrians, drivers—not who, but how many. We all walk around with our phones every day, clicking buttons and giving out information about ourselves. Our privacy is already somewhat compromised. The trade-off is technological innovation. At the same time, I think fears around the project have been legitimate, exacerbated by the fact that the public and Waterfront Toronto don’t know exactly what Sidewalk Labs is proposing.

If the project does proceed, would you consider living there?
My wife, Karen, and I live near Avenue Road and St. Clair, and I don’t see us moving. But the Sidewalk site, on the water and so close to downtown, is incredible.

How “smart” are you and Karen in your day-to-day lives?
We’re learning. We just installed smart tech in our cottage on Georgian Bay. I can control the temperature and lights from my phone. It’s amazing.

Toronto has always had a fraught relationship with the waterfront. Why is that?
The initial purpose of the waterfront was industrial. Once that faded, there were challenges in how to manage development. Government didn’t step in until 2001, and by that time, buildings had cut off the city from the water, especially in the west end. There has been a lot of improvement, though. The West Don Lands is going to be really great when it’s finished. Then there’s Sugar Beach, which is terrific.

You don’t strike me as the pink-umbrella selfie type.
Who isn’t a fan of umbrellas and selfies? I guess Sugar Beach brings out the kid in all of us. Plus, where else can you go to watch planes, cranes and boats?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.