Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 16: The MIDP Volume 1, The Plans; Chapter 1: The Quayside Plan, Part 1: Development Plan

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

One question I’d love to have answered by people who know how land developments typically work is, how detailed should these plans be? Sidewalk Labs has had almost two years to put together these plans for what is really not that much land. Beyond this specific project, you would hope they’ve been thinking about their building designs for a longer time before that.

After all, this neighbourhood isn’t just going to be a laboratory to test unproven technologies; people are going to have to live here. In other words, certain technologies – such as their innovative building designs – are going to have to be ready on Day One. It would be completely unacceptable for, say, a building to fail (i.e., collapse) because the plans didn’t work out. Silicon Valley companies ship buggy software all the time; the rest of the world doesn’t (or shouldn’t) work like that.

The reason I ask is that so many of these 1,500 pages read like the world’s most convoluted sales brochure. The most detailed parts so far deal with how Sidewalk Labs is going to get paid. There are no detailed building plans that certify that their proposals for, say, moveable walls within buildings can actually work. And I understand from Dr. Natasha Tusikov, who’s read ahead, that even the regulatory changes that Sidewalk Labs wants are only discussed at the level of the legislation – there are no details about what exact changes would be necessary.

The obvious conclusion from this report is that Sidewalk Labs is not presenting a detailed plan; they’re presenting a more detailed version of their response to the Request for Proposals. It’s still mostly a list of ideas complemented with pastel drawings of parks and waterfronts. For all the daunting length of this report, there’s very little here.

Part 1: Development Plan (pp. 48-95)

Part 1.1: The Quayside Site Plan (pp. 50-67; not listed in the Table of Contents)

This part shows “the site plan and some illustrative renderings of the neighbourhood, as well as a breakdown of the development program into its core components.” (p. 49)

This connection to the water is a major theme of the Quayside plan: residents, workers, and visitors can interact directly with the water through barges, kayaks, and new floating boardwalks. (p. 50)

The site consists of 2.65 million square feet of developable space, 10 buildings across five sites that mix residential and commercial uses, and four hectares of public realm. At full build, Quayside could house roughly 4,500 residents in a range of housing options affordable to people of all incomes, as well as host roughly 3,900 jobs. (p. 56)

Outdoor-comfort strategies, such as building Raincoats that extend over the sidewalk…” (p. 67).

Honest question: How are “building Raincoats” different from “awnings”?

Part 1.2: The Quayside Development Program (pp. 68-81; not listed in the Table of Contents)

 Points of interest, and some very brief comments:

It’s charming that Sidewalk Labs considers the achievement of “Accelerated light rail expansion” as one of their “revolutionary” deliverables, alongside “All-wood construction” (p. 69).

I will leave it to others as to whether Sidewalk Labs’ “commitment to mixed-income housing” is “unprecedented”


(Additional information on how Sidewalk Labs’ proposed plan meets or exceeds existing precinct plans and zoning bylaws is available in the “Planning Policy Justification Report” section of the MIDP Technical Appendix.) (p. 70)

Quayside: “five sites, 10 buildings, and 2.65 million square feet of developable space.” (p. 70; detailed table on p. 71)

All-wood buildings

removing the equivalent of 20,000 cars from the road annually. (p. 70)

“Stoa on the lower two floors” (retail, production, community spaces)

Loft designs: flexible spaces in mid-rise part (fewer stories than is typical due to higher ceilings): commercial and “live-work spaces in what would normally be residential-only building.” (p. 71)

Note: “Outcome-based” bylaws would be needed to allow manufacturing and residential living to coexist. A good area for urban experts to weigh in.

Sidewalk Labs aims to create a neighbourhood filled with more open and publicly accessible space than it might otherwise have, often with an intimate feel. (p. 72)

This quote makes me think of the Australian urban-planning-department comedy Utopia. Actually, most of the Quayside development makes me think of Utopia.

(Note to self: re-watch Utopia.)

I’ll also leave to the experts a review of their proposed commercial/residential splits in Part 1.2. However, I will note that they place a great deal of emphasis on the flexibility of their “Stoa” and “Loft” spaces.  To what extent does this lack of flexibility inhibit or impair the development of mixed neighbourhoods? How often does a given space open up for rental or renovation?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, these proposals are being presented as a solution to a problem whose negative effects are never investigated. Unasked questions: What is the size of the cost that the current situation is imposing on society? Do these “problems” warrant a response, particularly this response?

On mixed use: Sidewalk Labs takes control

A typical development is not designed in such a way to include light manufacturing, and zoning and building codes often prohibit production spaces within mixed-use projects. But production-oriented businesses are once again becoming a key part of urban economic growth. (p. 77)

This quote offers a good example of how Sidewalk Labs is privatizing control over bylaws regarding a traditionally public-sector issue. With this proposal, Sidewalk Labs is trying to present a technical solution to a political problem. The discussion about whether current zoning and building codes are appropriate for today’s society would be a worthwhile one, but Sidewalk Labs here is assuming the answer rather than investigating the question.

These concerns are not mitigated by the fact that Sidewalk Labs says it

plans to work closely with the city to develop this proposed system, which would be operated, managed, and enforced by the City of Toronto, in full accordance with the standards established by the city. (p. 77)

Note that in Sidewalk Labs’ telling, the City only has the power to set standards within the parameters set by Sidewalk Labs, when it’s the fundamental decision to embrace this mixed-used zoning that’s the important issue.

Open spaces: “more than 40,000 square metres of open space” (p. 78).

A proposed set of outdoor comfort strategies and weather-mitigation structures would increase the number of hours it is comfortable to be outdoors by an estimated 35 percent, as compared to traditional public spaces. (p. 79)

Parking: non above-ground; 500 spaces for a visitors’ below-ground lot; underground interchange facility for those who want to drive to Quayside. The cars would be stored “at a 750-space off-site parking facility in the Port Lands or a nearby location.” (p. 80)

Question: Does Sidewalk Labs’ climate change mitigation strategy account for these 1,250 cars, not all of which will be electric?

The Waterfront Transportation Management Association would control these off-site lots. (p. 80) (Questions: How far off-site? In the River District? Beyond? Would this expand Sidewalk Labs’ sphere of influence?)

High prices for on-site parking (p. 81) would serve as a driving disincentive for Quayside residents.

They’re planning for self-driving cars by 2034. “Sidewalk Labs also predicts that, within the next 15 years, shared access to self-driving vehicles would fill any remaining needs that private cars serve today.” (p. 80)

I’ll bet the over.

Part 1.3: Committing to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (pp. 82-87; not listed in the Table of Contents)

Nothing to see here: This part repeats word-for-word Overview pages 150-155.

Part 1.4: Quayside Impact: The New Bottom Line (pp. 88-93; not listed in the Table of Contents)

This section provides/repeats from the Overview Sidewalk Labs’ anticipated economic benefits:

  • 11,000 construction jobs “and catalyzing a new mass timber industry,” and 3,900 permanent jobs (p. 89)
  • Reduce greenhouse gases by 85% (p. 90)
  • Its housing targets (p. 91)\
  • 73% of trips using public transit, walking, or cycling. 91% more pedestrian space “than a business-as-usual development scenario, although this depends in part on “the potential for self-driving vehicles to share a right-of-way with public transit …” (p. 92, emphasis added) (Questions: So do ride shares and ride hailing count as public transit? What if self-driving cars doesn’t become a thing?)
  • Catalyzing digital innovation while protecting privacy (p. 93). Setting agreed-upon “data standards and protocols,” centred around an “open-data architecture”

To implement the systems needed to achieve quality-of-life objectives, Sidewalk Labs plans to purchase third-party technology or partner with third parties to create (or enhance) it whenever possible, giving priority to technology that is local to Toronto, Ontario, or Canada. (p. 93).

An “Urban Data Trust” to handle the Sidewalk Labs-invented concept of “urban data,” which I’ll cover soon, probably in the next post.

Exploring larger scales to realize and maximize the impact achieved in Quayside (p. 94-95, not listed in Table of Contents)

In which Sidewalk Labs argues (again) that they can do some interesting things in Quayside, but much of these will only work “at scale.” These include: “climate-positive infrastructure”; “light rail expansion” financed out of future growth; and mass timber production, which is designed to contribute to economic and environmental objectives. (p. 95)

In other words, if no scale, then no positive environmental and minimal economic impact for this project.

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