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Editorials The cracks in Sidewalk Labs’ latest plans for Toronto

In October, 2017, when Sidewalk Labs was chosen to develop a small, mostly barren patch of land on the water near downtown Toronto, Eric Schmidt talked about how the idea for the company that became Sidewalk had emerged at Google. The internet-advertising firm was excited, he said, about “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge... Thank you very much, Canada.”

Mr. Schmidt, who was then the executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent of Google and Sidewalk Labs, quickly conceded, “It doesn’t work that way.” But after Sidewalk Labs’ splash on Monday in Toronto, where it unleashed 1,500-plus pages of plans for a city of the future, there is a distinct echo of the “put us in charge” refrain.

Torontonians, and Canadians, have reason to be skeptical.

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The original deal was for Sidewalk to work on a 12-acre site called Quayside, in a process led by Waterfront Toronto, an agency that is a partnership between the city, the province and Ottawa.

Sidewalk Labs on Monday instead unveiled a huge proposal that goes far beyond Quayside. It wants to build on more land and deploy technology even further beyond that; it insists on a new transit line, and even has plans for a factory to produce specialized wood for timber buildings.

The reasoning behind this ambition? The ideas that Sidewalk Labs conjured are so bold they need a greater scale than the small Quayside site.

Ever since Sidewalk Labs won the right to present its ideas, it has faced criticism. The still-unanswered question of what’s in it for Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet and Google is a primary one. Stephen Diamond, Waterfront’s chair, called the scale of Sidewalk Labs’ pitch “premature,” and said its positioning as lead developer of Quayside was not part an agreement last summer.

Mr. Diamond added that Sidewalk Labs is asking for a lot of things – including the transit line – that go far beyond Waterfront Toronto’s ambit.

In short, Sidewalk Labs’ 1,500 pages have raised more concerns than they have assuaged, and provoked more questions than they have answered.

To be sure, it is valuable for Toronto to support innovative thinking and prosperous industries. The tech business, however, is already booming in downtown Toronto. The promise of a new Google Canada headquarters on an additional portion of waterfront land is intriguing, but that tasty carrot is not enough of a reason to give the green light for Sidewalk’s big, broad and still opaque ambitions.

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So many questions remain. Sidewalk Labs talked about eventual but undefined “performance payments.” The sharing of benefits from new technology at Quayside is vague. Sidewalk Labs also wants an unquantified “discount” on the price of the land, because of “requirements imposed” by Waterfront Toronto. And Sidewalk further outlined an array of changes it wants to civic and provincial rules, from the Ontario Highway Traffic Act and the city’s municipal code to the province’s Building Code and Energy Board.

One key Waterfront Toronto goal for Quayside was “places to live for people of all ages, abilities and incomes.” But what does an internet-advertising company really know about city building? It’s not an unreasonable question, if the goal is a great neighbourhood for people to live in, rather than a neighbourhood as tech experiment. Google’s own suburban home in California is hardly a model. And Silicon Valley is a planning nightmare; a low-density, ultrahigh-rent community, built around the car.

The techno-utopian promise of Sidewalk Labs has always been intriguing. Who doesn’t want to imagine an amazing city of the future? Yet amid the world’s deepening doubts about Big Tech, Sidewalk Labs still has not made the case that what’s good for Sidewalk is good for Toronto. It’s not even entirely clear what Sidewalk wants to do, or why.

It’s been said critics of Sidewalk have rooted their questions in doubt and fear. The truth may be the opposite. Skepticism comes from a place of confidence. Greater Toronto is one of North America’s biggest city-regions, with a dynamic economy. It embraces the future.

But the future – “Toronto Tomorrow,” in the words of Sidewalk – does not hinge on a tech pilot project on the city’s waterfront. Toronto, Queen’s Park and Ottawa must demand a smarter deal than the one Sidewalk Labs has offered.

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