A panel of experts advising development agency Waterfront Toronto about a proposed redevelopment of a waterfront neighbourhood has issued a report calling Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs’s plan “frustratingly abstract.”
In its 99-page report released Tuesday, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel questioned the necessity of some of the innovations that New York-based Sidewalk Labs has proposed for a prime swath of land along the city’s eastern lakefront.
The report isn’t necessarily a game changer for the future of the proposal, which needs approval from Waterfront Toronto and three levels of government before moving ahead. However, it is further evidence of concern among some community groups and experts about the project.
Sidewalk Labs said more information about its plans are forthcoming.
The panel – which includes 15 specialists in technology, development and privacy, including University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist and former Waterfront Toronto board chair Mark Wilson – criticized Sidewalk Labs for being vague about how it could implement the project and asked for more information about how it will handle data-collection, digital governance and intellectual property.
“There are a large number of innovations put forward – many of which panelists recognized as being positive – but little detail is present on how they would be designed or implemented, the unique value proposition put forward is not always convincing, and accountabilities are undeveloped,” the report says.
Keerthana Rang, a spokeswoman for Sidewalk Labs, said the company welcomed the report, adding that it had heard similar questions from the panel in the past few months and was preparing more information to respond to the concerns.
Ms. Rang said that, early next month, Sidewalk Labs will produce a “Digital Innovation Appendix” for its massive plan, a summary that will include "a comprehensive list of technology that would be deployed in Quayside, how we would support Toronto’s technology ecosystem and our research work on data governance.”
Sidewalk Labs representatives are also due to address the panel at its meeting on Thursday, where they will go over a draft table of contents for the forthcoming appendix and answer questions.
“We are confident the Digital Innovation Appendix will help respond to some of this feedback,” Ms. Rang said in an e-mail. “We look forward to reviewing this feedback and further conversation with the panel.”
The panel’s report – billed as “preliminary commentary” and prefaced with a note saying not every panelist necessarily agreed with every criticism in the report – was assembled after Sidewalk Labs unveiled a 1,524-page draft plan for the project in late June. The $1.3-billion plan was sprinkled with promises of affordable housing, sustainability measures, sensors to collect data, adaptable public spaces, heated sidewalks and even “raincoats for buildings.”
It also revealed that Sidewalk Labs wanted to be involved in the development of a parcel of land 16 times larger than the 12-acre area first proposed for the project in 2017, when Waterfront Toronto granted it the opportunity to draft an idea for the lakefront property.
Ever since then, Sidewalk Labs has faced a steady stream of backlash around its commitment to privacy and its value proposition, and the revelation of the 190-acre scope of the proposal has seen everyone from Ontario Premier Doug Ford to city councillors and former BlackBerry executive Jim Balsillie expressing concerns.
Tuesday’s report reveals that the panel members are just as worried. The report calls the new scope of the proposal “unclear and/or concerning” and says it “did not appear to put the citizen at the centre of the design process for digital innovations, as was promised in the beginning and is necessary for legitimacy.
“At least one panelist believes that Sidewalk Labs has not shown the ability to work with governments, private-sector actors or the public in an agile manner,” it adds.
The panel’s remarks come as the project nears a crucial juncture. Last month Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto reached an agreement that would allow them to scrap the venture by Oct. 31 if the two have not reached a consensus on several concerns of Waterfront Toronto board chair Stephen Diamond.
The groups are at odds because Sidewalk Labs wants to be the project’s lead developer, while Waterfront Toronto prefers a public procurement process. The agency also has concerns about performance bonuses, Sidewalk Labs’s demand that governments expand public transit in the area and the need to rewrite municipal and provincial laws for the project to move forward. Waterfront Toronto says such requests are outside its purview.
Their concerns were outlined in a letter Mr. Diamond sent to Sidewalk Labs in the summer that labelled the scope of the proposal “premature” and suggested Sidewalk Labs stick to developing the original 12 acres before broadening its reach.
After reviewing the panel’s report, Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, told The Globe she found many of the issues the document raised were not new.
“It is a report that reflects much of the conversation that had been had prior to the (plan) being released, but in a more in-depth and targeted fashion, and it is certainly consistent with some of the commentary we have heard during the public consultation process. So this really underlines and underscores key areas that need to be addressed,” she said.
She said Waterfront Toronto will use the report to guide how it approaches conversations with Sidewalk Labs. Ms. Verner said Waterfront Toronto isn’t at the point where it is considering axing its agreement with Sidewalk Labs and looking for another partner.
The two organizations are talking as they work through the issues Mr. Diamond’s letter outlined, but Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty said it’s “tough” to say whether they will have found a consensus by Oct. 31.
“We are still negotiating some of those issues and hoping that we can get to a better understanding, so we can move into an evaluation,” he said.