Toronto, Queen’s Park and Ottawa all support naming veteran real estate developer Stephen Diamond as the next chair of Waterfront Toronto – and he says he wants the tripartite government agency to take a greater leadership role in its proposed smart-city partnership with Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs as key decisions approach in the coming months.
On Tuesday, Toronto City Council unanimously approved appointing the president and chief executive of commercial-real-estate developer Diamond Corp. as chair of the tripartite development agency; The Globe and Mail reported last week that he was the top contender for the role. Federal Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton submitted letters to council supporting his nomination for a three-year term beginning March 15.
“It’s my hope that Waterfront Toronto will take a leadership role in the discussions in a very public and transparent way,” Mr. Diamond said in an interview Tuesday.
In an e-mailed statement, Mayor John Tory said that “I believe that Mr. Diamond has the necessary skills, qualifications and experience required to lead the revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront. … City Council’s unanimous vote today is a further sign of that confidence.” Waterfront Toronto acting board chair Janet Rieksts-Alderman said in a statement that the tripartite appointment is “a testament to the leadership, direction, and commitment that he has provided Waterfront Toronto for nearly 3 years.”
Each of the three levels of government can appoint four directors to the Waterfront Toronto board. Mr. Diamond is already a city-appointed director, although his three-year term is set to expire next month. His official appointment to chair is expected within weeks, and marks the first time since Waterfront Toronto enacted its current governance structure that all three levels of government agreed to appoint an independent chair separate from their allotted directors. Mr. Diamond had planned to resign from his board position in December to focus on work commitments, but changed his mind after Mr. Tory asked him to stay to provide stability as the board’s ranks dwindled.
“The fact that this is the first time all three levels of government have agreed on a Chair is telling,” Mr. McNaughton said in a statement. Infrastructure Canada spokesperson Lama Khodr confirmed Ottawa’s support of Mr. Diamond, and in an e-mail, called him “an experienced member of the local business community, trusted civic leader and has already made important contributions to the Waterfront Toronto board.”
Waterfront Toronto’s leadership has undergone significant changes since it announced in October, 2017, that it would partner with Sidewalk, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., to develop a digitally connected community on a 12-acre slice of Toronto’s eastern waterfront called Quayside. The CEO who shepherded the concept, Will Fleissig, resigned half a year later, and was replaced as acting CEO by director Michael Nobrega. In December, Mr. Nobrega and chair Helen Burstyn were fired as directors by Doug Ford’s provincial government after the Ontario Auditor-General criticized the project’s procurement process, timelines and government oversight. And last week, Marisa Piattelli, Waterfront Toronto’s chief strategy officer and de facto No. 2, resigned from the agency.
On Tuesday, Toronto City Council also extended the terms of two other city-appointed directors − Mohamed Dhanani, an adviser in Ryerson University’s president’s office, and Susie Henderson, an infrastructure expert with consultants GHD Advisory – until the city names new directors later in the spring. Ontario is expected to name four new directors to replace those it fired in December before the next board meeting on March 21.
Mr. Diamond spoke to The Globe and Mail by phone Tuesday afternoon about his new position. While he was hesitant to speak in specific terms about the contentious Quayside project, he repeatedly noted the necessity for Waterfront Toronto to take a greater leadership role as the project progresses ahead of a definitive board vote to proceed later this year.
Why the change of heart about the board after nearly quitting last year?
I was receiving calls both from the mayor and from the premier, and from some representatives from the federal government, who asked in this important moment in history for the city and the province, if I would take on the role. And our country has been good to us, our family, and if there’s an opportunity to take a leadership role and make a positive contribution back, that’s something we should all be involved with.
Why also accept the role of chair?
I believe that Waterfront Toronto can only be successful if there is a shared endorsement and commitment from all three levels of government.
What are your thoughts on the state of the Quayside project with Sidewalk Labs?
It’s important at this juncture to move forward with discussions and negotiations with Sidewalk in a very public and transparent way. … It’s difficult when there’s been so much discussion in the media and elsewhere about their proposal, when their formal business proposal [the Master Innovation and Development Plan, or MIDP, due to the agency this spring] has not been presented to Waterfront Toronto.
Earlier this month, the Toronto Star reported leaked details about Sidewalk Labs’s business plan for Quayside – which Sidewalk Labs later clarified in media interviews – including detailed plans for Waterfront lands well beyond the Quayside site and a proposal to fund light-rail transit in the area in exchange for a share of income streams from future developments including property taxes and development fees.
It’s unfortunate that some of the details of the proposed plan have been sounded out by Sidewalk in a public manner when the formal business proposal has not been formally submitted to Waterfront Toronto for its review.
I can’t make a comment on that plan until [final] details come forward. Once those details are made available, it’s my hope that Waterfront Toronto will take a leadership role in the discussions in a very public and transparent way.
What I think is really important now is to move forward. There’s a currently an agreement [the Plan Development Agreement, published last July] and a plan that’s supposed to come in [the MIDP, which will go to public consultations then a board vote later this year]. We should be spending our time looking at its merits, and whether it’s the right thing to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed
With a report from Jeff Gray