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Quayside: Partnership with Sidewalk Labs is not a done deal, Waterfront Toronto warns

June 3, 2018
David Rider

Sidewalk Labs’s plans for a high-tech test neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront could be in question as early as midsummer if ongoing talks don’t produce a development agreement with Waterfront Toronto, that agency’s chairwoman said last week.

Helen Burstyn made the surprising comments to the Star on Thursday after emerging from a four-hour closed-door briefing to her board by staff of the tri-governmental agency now negotiating with Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, on a development agreement.

“We’re making good progress,” and hope to have a deal signed by midsummer to pave the way to further negotiations on a more involved master innovation development plan expected to be completed by the end of 2018 and taken to all stakeholders for final agreement, she said.

But if by midsummer “we don’t arrive at a planned development agreement with Sidewalk Labs, that leaves us open to look at other options and partners,” Burstyn said, adding “Sidewalk is our preferred partner, not our assured partner.”

Asked to clarify what happens if no deal is reached, Burstyn said: “Then we may both go pursue other options.” Her board needs terms agreeable to the federal, provincial and Toronto governments, she said, while Sidewalk needs the blessing of “Mountainview” -- the California home of Alphabet Inc., which owns Manhattan-based urban innovation firm as well as Google.

On Friday, after the Star asked Waterfront Toronto staff and Sidewalk Labs for comment, Burstyn phoned to “clarify” her comments, saying: “It’s certainly not true that we’re looking for other partners. We are really delighted with Sidewalk Labs.”

The tender process that last fall identified the firm as the best development partner for the 12-acre Quayside site near Lake Shore Blvd. E. and Parliament St. “was a rigorous one and they came up with the best ideas,” said Burstyn who became chair in January 2017.

“It’s a slog getting through a legal agreement, it has to be very carefully thought through and all the implications. We’re working very hard on that now, it’s going well. The briefing I had yesterday confirms it’s going well and I really seeing us being able to come up with an agreement ... Sidewalk Labs is the only one on our dance card.”

Asked about the possibility Sidewalk could be sidelined within a couple of months, the firm’s external affairs director Lauren Skelly said only: “We are feeling great about how things are going.”

Waterfront Toronto’s development partner selection, announced last fall at a splashy event at Corus Quay with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Eric Schmidt, then Alphabet’s executive chairman, made international headlines.

Trudeau predicted Sidewalk Labs would develop “technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities which we hope to see scaled across Toronto’s eastern waterfront and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world.”

Schmidt described the choice of Toronto as the result of years of discussions with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and a visit with Trudeau where the Prime Minister pitched his vision of Canada as a “Silicon Valley, plus everything else Canada is.”

Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs’s chief executive, said his company would spend up to $50 million over a year working with Waterfront Toronto on plans for a heavily connected neighbourhood using sensors and other technologies to solve the biggest problems facing cities today.

Preliminary plans include self-driving cars and buses replacing privately owned vehicles, new wood technologies in multi-use buildings to make housing cheaper, and “weather mitigation” tools such as awnings and heated paths to get people outside more in the winter.

Will Fleissig, Waterfront Toronto’s chief executive, told the Star last fall that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal was the best of several excellent pitches for the district from international companies.

Since then the proposal dubbed “Sidewalk Toronto” has included a flurry of activities. On Saturday, June 16, people are invited to the opening of an “experimental workspace” at 307 Lake Shore Blvd. E. for “Open Sidewalk,” a monthly event exploring “community co-creation” ideas for Quayside.

Questions linger, however, over the ownership, use and protection of data gathered in Quayside as well as any plans the partners have for the 800-acre Port Lands, most of which is owned by the city.

One issue settled, however, is agreement between the three governments on a $1.25-billion Don River flood protection project vital to development of the eastern waterfront. Waterfront Toronto confirmed Thursday that the “contribution agreement ... has been executed.”