One of the largest private landowners in Toronto’s Port Lands is warning that a plan by Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs LLC to guide development of 190 acres in the district faces long odds of success and has the potential to paralyze continuing projects in the area.
“I think that’s massive, that’s far-fetched actually,” said Alfredo Romano, president of Castlepoint Realty Partners, of a new proposal from the New York urban-planning firm, which is controlled by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. “I don’t think that scale would be achievable in our political environment.”
Waterfront Toronto, a development agency led by all three levels of government, named Sidewalk Labs its partner to help develop a 12-acre parcel of land called Quayside on the city’s harbour in 2017. The plans for the project include a number of what it calls “smart city” ideas, such as traffic crossings with sensors that provide more time for slower pedestrians and innovations that would minimize energy use in buildings.
Sidewalk’s draft plan, unveiled Monday, includes a proposal that would also see the company get a role in developing a broader 190-acre area it calls the Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration, or “IDEA” district. The plan requires approvals from both Waterfront Toronto and the city government.
Castlepoint and its partners control two large plots close to Quayside, both of which fall within the boundaries of the IDEA district that Sidewalk proposed. Mr. Romano, who has been investing in land in that vicinity since 1995, back when “you couldn’t pay somebody to fly over it,” said while he hasn’t yet read Sidewalk’s full 1,524 page proposal, he has engaged in high-level talks with the company and is supportive of some of its ideas, but not the whole plan.
“I understand their requirement for critical mass,” he said. “Is it overly ambitious? We’ll see … on the face of it, yes. I don’t like this idea that some big idea [is] going to deliver the Holy Grail. I like incremental development. The danger with the big idea: it comes in and it kinda paralyzes everybody.
“So my recommendation would be if you’re going to seriously consider this, do it in a reasonably quick time-frame. Don’t hang around the event forever, because you do in fact sterilize other opportunities.”
Josh Sirefman, chief development officer and co-founder of Sidewalk Labs, said the company’s goal is to “ultimately accelerate the development of a whole broader area.”
“The underlying intent is that if there are innovations that are effective and useful – that result in adjustment of regulatory or public control of development – that it would be wonderful if it was adopted elsewhere and be beneficial to consumers and developers.”
But Mr. Romano also questions whether the Port Lands needs a tech company’s help developing the area.
“This Google play is not the first of what I would call a kind of ‘magic bullet’ proposals, one big idea that’s going to magically transform the Port Lands. We’ve seen that before,” including proposals for mega malls, casinos and Ferris wheels, he said.
“There is a lot of investment and expertise in the development area already down there – Daniels, Fernbrook, Hines, Tridel, Great Gulf, Dream, Menkes – that’s a lot of firepower and now billions and billions of dollars already invested. I just don’t think that Google can be a great addition to this existing constellation. They are not the messiah.”
Sidewalk has also reached out to some of those developers, including Michael Cooper and his portfolio of real estate companies, Dream Unlimited Corp.
Mr. Cooper and residential developer Great Gulf own a 5.3-acre plot of land adjacent to Quayside, which they plan to turn into residential properties with some retail. Sidewalk calls it an “optional” part of the IDEA district.
“We committed to it and bought it before this whole thing was announced,” said Mr. Cooper, Dream’s president. “We love the area.”
He called Sidewalk’s master plan “innovative” and said he would continue to buy more land in the southeastern part of the city. However, Dream is not waiting for Sidewalk to win city approval to continue its development. “We are not putting the site on hold for anyone,” he said.
Jim Ritchie, executive vice-president at Tridel Group, said his condo development company supports Sidewalk’s vision for the site in concept because it will help develop the eastern waterfront region and bring more technology companies to Toronto, but said there are many details still to be determined.
“It’s a bit early to get definitive about a position, but conceptually we’re supportive,” he said.
Tridel is helping develop a 13-acre parcel of land adjacent to the Quayside site along Lake Ontario. Led by global real estate company Hines, the Bayside project will have four condo towers with almost 1,000 units, plus two office buildings and retail space.
Mr. Ritchie said Bayside’s partners had to satisfy a number of requirements for the site from Waterfront Toronto involving design excellence, innovation, sustainability, contribution to economic growth, new parkland and public space. Sidewalk Labs ought to face the same scrutiny, he said.
“In terms of the concept and the ideas, the innovation, the sustainability, all those things I think are very good, but the due process was no different for us and it has to be the same for them,” he said.
Sidewalk’s Mr. Sirefman confirmed the company’s intent is that private developers “would have the ability to opt in to what we’re trying to do … we’re not in the business at all of constraining what others can do. We think there’s tremendous synergy with what we’re proposing.”
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