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Sidewalk releases grand vision for controversial Toronto development

TORONTO — Sidewalk Labs has released its vision for a substantial new development on Toronto’s eastern waterfront that is facing criticism for its ambition and overreach.

The plan sets out what Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent-company Alphabet Inc., hopes will be a blueprint for urban development that will incorporate the latest concepts in building design, mobility, sustainability and inclusivity.

Sidewalk hopes to achieve nothing less than to improve everything about how people work and live, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at a media presentation Monday.

“Our proposal aims to do something extraordinary on Toronto’s eastern waterfront — create a new model of inclusive growth, where cutting-edge technology and forward-thinking urban design combine to achieve an ambitious improvement in every aspect of the way we live.”

Sidewalk’s proposal sets out detailed plans for a residential-focused 4.8-hectare Quayside site, but also goes much farther to envision the foundations of a 77-hectare eastern waterfront district along similar design ideals.  

The scope of the vision has been raised as a concern by Waterfront Toronto, a partnership between the City of Toronto and the provincial and federal governments, which is now reviewing the more than 1,500-page plan.

Steve Diamond, chair of the Waterfront board of directors, said in a letter raising early issues with the plan that the wider district concept is “premature.”

“Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas.”

Diamond also raised concerns about Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to be the lead developer at Quayside, which was not contemplated in the plan development agreement, as well as concerns about required government commitments on things like transit, regulations, and funding before proceeding, and issues around data management.

The development, which would incorporate extensive surveillance technology, has come under criticism over privacy issues as concerns about big technology companies increase.

“We heard serious concerns about privacy, boy, did we hear concerns about privacy,” said Doctoroff on Sidewalk’s months of public consultations.

Sidewalk Labs has recommended that an independent, government sanctioned trust be established to set guidelines and oversee data collection, while also committing not to sell personal information or use it for advertising.

Some, such as the group #BlockSidewalk, don’t see the data measures as enough and have called for the whole process to be abandoned over governance concerns.  

Waterfront Toronto will conduct its own consultations and evaluations before an expected vote on the plan in December or January.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

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