Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 20: The MIDP’s economic drivers: A Google-themed rerun of Amazon’s HQ2 debacle?

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

As if Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP wasn’t long enough, I decided I wanted to go deeper into the world they’ve created. If the MIDP is The Lord of the Rings (spoiler: only in length; it would be sacrilege to suggest otherwise), then the Master Innovation and Development Plan Technical Appendix is The Silmarillion: More world-building detail transacted at tedious length.

For all that, like The Silmarillion, these Technical Appendices can be enlightening.*

For example, I’ve been wondering what, exactly, is driving Sidewalk Labs’ anticipated economic effects. As it happens, while reading through the MIDP’s endnotes I realized that they had published a whole series of appendices that they didn’t bother to include with their 1,500-page four-volume report. Maybe they were worried that people would balk at the extra reading?

Anyway, among these documents is an economic impact analysis by urbanMetrics, which makes for some interesting reading.

So, on what’s driving Sidewalk Labs’ economic-growth predictions. As far as I can tell, the sustained economic growth (as opposed to one-time boosts from construction) envisioned by Sidewalk Labs would come primarily from Google’s Canadian branch headquarters’ presence in the Eastern Waterfront, the creation of a mass-timber construction industry, and a weakening of city bylaws.

On Google’s presence in the Eastern Waterfront, urbanMetrics notes:

Notwithstanding the range of other urban innovations proposed, this initiative alone presents an opportunity to cement the Eastern Waterfront as an innovative new district that could become an industry leader in advancing city-based technologies. (p. 15, emphasis added)

a proposal to relocate Google’s Canadian Headquarters to the Eastern Waterfront and establishing a corresponding Urban Innovation Cluster collectively represent a significant divergence from the types of traditional mixed-use development likely to prevail at this location in the absence of SWL. This will alter the core composition of the resulting employment base in this area, as well as the corresponding level and type of output from local businesses. (p. 13)

On a tall-timber industry

This initiative marks a significant departure from more traditional steel and concrete forms of development, which continue to dominate the construction landscape across North America.

Despite the significant environmental, cost and building efficiency benefits of timber-based construction, it has not yet been utilized on such a large scale to date; particularly in the Toronto context. (p. 16)

On weakening regulation (“radical mixed use”):

As demand for space changes through inevitable market cycles and technological advances, the SWL vision establishes an unparalleled degree of flexibility to avoid lengthy and expensive reconstruction projects and time delays in repositioning assets for various uses. This type of modularity also delivers significant benefit to individual businesses that could occupy space in these building, reflecting their own expansion and growth patterns over time. (p. 16)

They also highlight tourism as a potential economic driver. Unfortunately, of these potential ongoing contributors to economic growth, urbanMetrics only provides an economic model for tourism. However, it seems pretty clear that urbanMetrics at least recognizes that it’s Google’s presence via a branch headquarters that is the real game-changer, not any of Sidewalk Labs’ vapourware innovations.

Is Sidewalk Labs running a Google HQ2 play?

Which raises the question:

Are we witnessing a Google-themed rerun of Amazon’s HQ2 play, in which cities debased themselves to offer sweet concessions to bring a big company to town?

Consider what Toronto, Ontario and Canada could be giving to Google/Sidewalk Labs for the privilege of their presence:

  • A new light rail line in its preferred area;
  • Cheaper-than-market-value land;
  • Extensive weakening and/or changes of laws and regulations at every level of government, including minimal apartment sizes;
  • A share of tax revenue going forward; and
  • A dedicated market for a risky mass timber product.

Looked at from this perspective, it certainly seems like one of Sidewalk Labs’ main goals is to get Google a good deal on its headquarters on the most favourable conditions possible.

If the presence of Google HQ either is or is seen as the centrepiece of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal, the whole thing starts to seem less like a 21st century innovation district and more like the 21st-century digital equivalent of a free trade zone, or maquiladora, subject to its own rules. Once established, the overriding objective becomes keeping the foreign companies happy so that they won’t leave when they’re offered a better deal elsewhere.



* I should probably admit that I’ve never actually read The Silmarillion – its reputation precedes it. But it’s a good analogy, right?

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