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Here is Sidewalk Labs’s big plan for Toronto

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The $1.3 billion development is being billed as “the most innovative district in the entire world”

A rendering of an idealized neighborhood with modern buildings made from timber and people walking on a waterfront promenade and flying kites.
According to Sidewalk Labs, the development planned for Toronto’s waterfront will be the first neighborhood built entirely from mass timber.
Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs has delivered its $1.3 billion plan to redevelop 12 acres of Toronto’s industrial waterfront—along with a much bigger vision to create a massive urban-scale laboratory to prototype solutions to urban challenges.

On a call today, about 18 months after the Toronto Quayside site was selected by Sidewalk Labs, which is a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, the division’s CEO Dan Doctoroff said the planned development would be “the most innovative district in the entire world.”

In addition to creating 44,000 new jobs—with five non-tech jobs for every tech worker job—the reimagined neighborhood will also be the largest climate-positive development in North America, and possibly in the world, according to Doctoroff, a former New York City deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg. The area will generate 89 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than the average Toronto neighborhood, with an estimated 77 percent of all trips made using walking, biking, or transit.

The draft plan, entitled Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth, is a 1,500-page document which can be viewed on Sidewalk Toronto’s website. A four-volume printed publication of the plan was delivered to Canadian officials and members of the media a few hours before Sidewalk Labs made the plan public.

Even stakeholders seemed taken aback by the amount of information. Waterfront Toronto, the public agency overseeing the city’s waterfront development, issued a statement that the organization will share a distilled “reader’s guide” for the plan in the coming days to help local residents navigate the document.

The 1,500-page, four-volume publication is filled with maps, infographics, and detailed full-color renderings which look more like paintings than proposals for planned development.
Alissa Walker

One entire volume of the proposal is devoted to the list of urban innovations proposed for Sidewalk Toronto, some of which had been announced previously: streets laid with a dynamic modular paving system, a new local mass-timber industry that will manufacture 12-story wooden towers, pneumatic trash collectors whisking recyclables away into underground tubes, and a “weather mitigation system” that will use a network of retractable awnings to keep public spaces bustling in cold or rainy weather.

But, according to the document, the 12 acres at Quayside is too small of an area to realize some of these innovations, which “can only become effective or financially feasible,” at a larger scale.

Earlier this year, the Toronto Star obtained leaked documents that showed Sidewalk Labs was scoping potential development over a much larger area. This area is presented in the plan as the 190-acre Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District, which may include a new Canadian headquarters for Google.

In a letter, Waterfront Toronto chairman Stephen Diamond called the proposal of the IDEA District “premature” and that Waterfront Toronto “must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas.”

The letter also says there are proposals in the plan “where it is clear that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have very different perspectives about what is required for success.”

Diamond specifically notes that Sidewalk Labs’s plan to create an independent “urban data trust” to collect and share personal data—an issue which has moved to the forefront since the project was first proposed in 2016—may be potentially at odds with existing privacy laws.

These concerns are shared by Block Sidewalk, a local opposition group which calls the plan an “aggressive corporate takeover of public land, public process, public services, and public funds.” According to a statement, the 1,500-page document is “designed to drown the public in detail,” making it harder for local residents to understand the potential impact of the proposal. “If the plan was actually good for Toronto,” the statement reads, “there would be no need for a massive PR and lobbying campaign.”

Sidewalk Labs claims that 21,000 people have attended meetings or given feedback on the plan, which has been significantly retooled in response to public engagement. “This has been hard,” said Doctoroff. “We’ve had to think and rethink.”

A pedestrian-prioritized street planned for Quayside.
Sidewalk Labs

Over the last year, the landscape has shifted significantly for tech companies attempting to bankroll large-scale developments in American cities. In February, New York City leaders successfully thwarted Amazon’s plans to build a new headquarters in Long Island City, spurring a conversation about how large tech companies are exacerbating local housing and displacement issues.

The $1.3 billion figure that Sidewalk Labs announced it will be investing in the Quayside project is particularly notable since just last week Google announced a separate $1 billion investment to build 20,000 new homes on or near its Mountain View, California campus to help ease the state’s housing shortage.

Asked how Sidewalk Labs’s work in Toronto might help to inform Google’s efforts in California, Doctoroff said the Quayside project will prototype approaches for building in high-cost urban environments, like coliving units that allow families to share some amenities and shared-equity strategies which allow residents to build value in their homes without fronting large down payments.

Just using a local mass-timber factory like the one planned for Toronto could reduce the cost of construction by up to 20 percent, Doctoroff said. “The impact of that on affordability could be truly profound.”

By making the Quayside plan public, Doctoroff believes the document can become a “new urban toolkit for the digital age” which can help cities around the world quickly build more sustainable, affordable communities. “People will form their own conclusions,” he said, “but we do believe this can be a model for inclusive growth.”