Sidewalk Labs cancels plan to build high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto

May 8, 2020

By: The Working Forest Staff

CBC NEWS — Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliated company, is abandoning its plan to build a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront, citing what it calls unprecedented economic uncertainty.

The project, dubbed Quayside, still didn’t have all of the government approvals it needed to go ahead. Toronto citizens and civic leaders had raised concerns about the privacy implications of the project and how much of the city’s developing waterfront Sidewalk Labs wanted to control. 

The so-called “smart city” was set to feature a range of cutting-edge technology, from residential towers made of timber to the use of autonomous cars and heated sidewalks. The company had initially claimed the project would create 44,000 jobs, generate $4.3 billion in annual tax revenues and add $14.2 billion annually in gross domestic product for Canada.

“As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed,” company CEO Dan Doctoroff said in a statement.

Toronto Mayor John Tory was quick to issue a statement saying he regrets the company’s decision, but anticipates others will step in to develop the area.

“Toronto’s economy will come back strong after COVID-19 and we will continue to be a magnet for smart people and smart companies,” he said in an email.

Tory also said he plans to push Waterfront Toronto, the organization that controls development along the city’s shoreline, and both the provincial and federal governments to make sure any new development in the area will create new jobs and a “carbon-neutral neighbourhood” with affordable housing units and “better transportation and sustainability features.”

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said in a statement issued Thursday that the decision to walk away from the project was ‘a difficult one.’ (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Throughout the process, critics complained about a U.S. company getting its hands on prime land that could be developed by homegrown enterprises. They also worried about what would happen with data collected from a myriad of sensors and devices throughout the neighbourhood.

Last November, Sidewalk released a 482-page Digital Innovation Appendix explaining how it would use the data captured in the area. It also vowed to not use facial recognition software or use personal information for advertising purposes.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is calling the project’s cancellation “a victory for privacy and democracy, clearing the way for that reset to take place.

“Waterfront Toronto never had the jurisdiction to sign off on a data surveillance testbed with a Google sibling. Serious harms to privacy would have been our future,” the organization said in a statement.

“The current Canadian regulatory landscape simply lacks modernized privacy legislation to provide essential safeguards to protect residents and visitors from the kinds of ubiquitous and intensive sensor-laden infrastructure that was envisaged. So the project was fundamentally flawed from the outset.”

Concerns raised

Coun. Joe Cressy is a member of the Waterfront Toronto Board. He said in a statement he learned the company was pulling out of the project Thursday morning.

“Over the past two years, Waterfront Toronto has invested a considerable amount of work in the development of Quayside,” Cressy said. “Legitimate concerns were raised regarding Sidewalk Labs’ proposals, including concerns over data collection and digital governance.”

That led to reviews and “significant public consultation,” Cressy said, to understand the “risks and opportunities” of the proposal.

“While this does mean that Waterfront Toronto will start again to reimagine Quayside, none of this work will go to waste,” he said. “The engagement and feedback we have received from residents and community organizations has given us a solid framework that will shape our work going forward.”

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