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Technology Business leaders push for Sidewalk Labs smart-city development to be built on Toronto’s waterfront

Thirty business leaders in Canada are urging that Sidewalk Labs be allowed to build its proposed smart-city development on Toronto’s waterfront.

In a letter issued by the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Thursday, the group said that the Google sister-company’s controversial plans for a 12-acre plot on Toronto’s eastern lakeshore – which were released in late June in a 1,500 page proposal – has issues that need to be resolved, but regardless the project would drive solutions to development challenges in Toronto.

Twenty months after Sidewalk won the right to plan a so-called “smart city” in Toronto, it unveiled a draft master plan for Toronto’s Port Lands that described a community built of timber buildings with traffic sensors to adjust to pedestrian and vehicle demand, and an underground courier service tunnel with self-driving carts. The project has faced criticism and calls for its cancellation over Sidewalk’s proposal to increase its scope by guiding development across 190-acres of the lakeshore, and issues such as privacy and how the company will use data collected by sensors throughout the neighbourhood.

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The Toronto Region Board of Trade has long supported the development, hosting Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff at its annual dinner after the initial announcement in 2017 and conducting a research survey in May to evaluate local support for the project. To demonstrate continued support after the launch of the master plan, the organization solicited businesses leaders – including McKinsey & Co.’s global managing partner emeritus Dominic Barton and former Toronto mayors Barbara Hall and Art Eggleton – who wanted to add their names to the list of voices in favour of the development, according to Toronto Region Board of Trade spokesperson Matthew Kofsky.

The letter encourages Torontonians to “evaluate this proposal for the many positives it can bring.” It recognized continuing concerns around the project, but insisted that the project should go ahead anyway.

As Toronto grapples with an increasingly expensive housing market, climate-change risks and transit-infrastructure demands, the Quayside development should “be evaluated against whether [it] will help Toronto with the challenge of city-building,” the group said in the letter.

“Several issues and details must still be resolved; for example, Quayside and other similar projects in the Toronto region will have to comply with clear data privacy regulations that are not yet in place, and the eastern waterfront will still need a final path to rapid transit financing before this project can be developed to its full potential. Nevertheless, we also believe there are many exciting ideas in this proposal that can help Toronto tackle some of the major challenges we face," the Toronto Region Board of Trade wrote in the letter.

Janet Ecker, a former Ontario finance minister and a signatory of the letter, said that a large-scale project from a global company such as Google would attract further talent and investment, cementing Toronto as a technology hub.

“There is a whole list of other cities that would kill to get this opportunity,” Ms. Ecker said. “The reputation boost that this gives this region – you can’t pay for that kind of advertisement.”

The plan proposed a variety of regulatory changes for varying levels of governments to be able to implement its technological and infrastructure innovations. Sidewalk said that new quasi-government entities would need to be created to manage the expanded area, dubbed the IDEA District, including one that acts in place of parking and transit authorities.

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These policy changes would need to happen quickly. Sidewalk’s timeline has an imminent project start date, with shovels in the ground in two years’ time and occupancy by 2026. The proposal still requires approval from government agency Waterfront Toronto and the city government.

“Governments need to get their act in gear. This isn’t just a Sidewalk Labs issue. It’s much broader than that. There needs to be a regulatory framework that works for something like Sidewalk," Ms. Ecker said. “Just because there are privacy issues doesn’t mean we should say no, it means we should find a solution.”

The letter was signed by wide range of companies and organizations, including senior executives at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and Women’s College Hospital, as well as local community centres and non-profits such as the YMCA of Greater Toronto and United Way Greater Toronto.

Alan Broadbent, CEO of Toronto-based commercial real estate lender Avana Capital and signatory of the letter, said that while he has not read the master plan, he thinks that the controversial project is spurring large-scale discussions about infrastructure and development that rarely happen in a city where condo development happens on an case-by-case basis.

“It ignites a debate in Toronto that is usually missing around development," Mr. Broadbent said. "We’re now discussing what kind of development we want and who we want developing it and what the scope should be. Normally when a developer is building a tower, it becomes an extremely limited and narrow discussion.”

Mr. Broadbent would not comment on whether he supports Sidewalk’s proposed development plan.

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