Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Toronto skyline is seen past cranes in the waterfront area envisioned by Alphabet Inc.'s Sidewalk Labs as a new technical hub in the Port Lands district, on March 29, 2019.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Waterfront Toronto is not yet sure how it could handle certain risks that might arise from building a smart-city development with Sidewalk Labs along Lake Ontario, even as it signed off on 144 proposals the Google affiliate hopes to implement.

Ahead of a public consultation meeting on Feb. 29, the tripartite government development agency published documents Tuesday outlining its evaluation of 160 potential technologies, building proposals and private- and public-space designs that Sidewalk proposed last year for the 12-acre community, called Quayside.

Waterfront turned down 16 of the proposals. But the agency warned that its ability to address privacy and other technological risks that might come with implementing those it approved was a “work in progress” as it negotiates the terms of a potential deal with Sidewalk. “Waterfront Toronto will only undertake the project if confident that adequate controls are in place," the documents say. Waterfront’s board of directors, which includes representatives from the federal, Ontario and Toronto governments, will vote on whether to proceed with the project on May 20.

Sidewalk was announced as the winning bidder to plan a smart-city project at the foot of Parliament Street in October, 2017. Since then, critics have consistently warned it could undercut Canadian-bred tech companies and flagged potential privacy consequences from a potentially sensor-filled community, even as the public agency forced Sidewalk to walk back an ambitious request to plan a parcel 16 times the size of Quayside.

Spokesman Andrew Tumilty said that the months-long battle over the project terms last year, which landed in Waterfront’s favour on Halloween, “gives us a certain amount of confidence” that risks would be avoided as the agency continues negotiations. George Zegarac, Waterfront’s chief executive, said in a media briefing Tuesday that “we’ll be updating the public as we go along" about any potential risks they find, including around privacy, intellectual property (IP) and other technical aspects of Sidewalk’s proposals.

Waterfront said it supported many of Sidewalk’s proposals that were revealed last year, such as responsive street lighting, heated modular pavement tiles and using vacuum tubes to collect waste. The agency also provided a brief update on the project’s potential IP provisions, saying they were negotiating not just with Sidewalk, but its holding company, Google-parent Alphabet Inc.; staff also said they committed to including “non-assert” provisions in any deal that could give Canadian-owned companies access to a wide range of patents to boost their competitiveness.

The public-consultation documents reveal just how malleable the project’s terms are, however. One of Sidewalk’s most widely marketed proposals for Quayside has been transparent, tent-like “raincoats” attached to buildings to shield outdoor spaces during harsh weather. Waterfront rejected the idea, arguing that it could create accessibility issues, and added that staff was unsure that the prototype that Sidewalk installed at its Toronto office functioned as intended.

Waterfront also rejected some of Sidewalk’s proposals for ultrasmall apartments to maximize building space in the community – which Sidewalk marketed as “efficient” and “ultraefficient” – telling reporters that they were concerned the apartments could be unlivable.

Waterfront also clarified certain issues for which it would need to seek regulatory or policy reform, such as using engineered wood to build towers as high as 30 stories. Mr. Zegarac highlighted a wooden 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia as an example – while regulations generally forbid such high wooden buildings, it went ahead as part of a pilot project, which Waterfront and Sidewalk could similarly push for at Quayside.

The public agency also rejected a proposal to capture heat from sewage waste at the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Facility, saying that it is too far away – four kilometres – to feasibly deliver heat to the Quayside site. But, as with other rejected proposals such as building raincoats, Waterfront said it would not rule out similar technologies if they later proved feasible.

Sidewalk spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said in an e-mail that the Alphabet subsidiary was pleased that Waterfront agreed with advancing the project, adding that the company would continue refining ideas around apartment-unit designs and harsh-climate mitigation. The sewage-waste heat-capture idea was largely dependent on Sidewalk’s now-quashed 190-acre plan, she continued. “We are still in active negotiations with Waterfront Toronto and are still reviewing what will be possible at Quayside,” she said.

Block Sidewalk, one of the most vocal groups approaching the project, said the public needed more time to evaluate the details Waterfront had endorsed. “It’s hard to imagine how Waterfront Toronto could obtain meaningful public consent by holding a single day of consultations shortly after releasing information on 144 proposals,” spokesperson JJ Fueser said.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story