Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 21: The MIDP Volume 1, The Plans; Chapter 2: The River District, Introduction

Same volume (one), but new chapter (2). Progress!

In which I wonder exactly how deep Google’s pockets actually are.

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

Introduction (pp. 256-291)

Here, Sidewalk Labs attempts to move the goalposts of the RFP from a Quayside project with possible extensions into the wider Eastern Waterfront to an Eastern Waterfront project (relabeled the IDEA District) of which Quayside is an integral part. It’s a deft, if long-winded sleight of hand.

And of course, Sidewalk Labs hasn’t bothered to list the subsections of each sections in the Table of Contents. Also, there is no overarching (four-volume) Table of Contents.

Just in case you’ve lost track, here’s the land under discussion (map on page 259):

  • The IDEA District consists of the “River District” and Quayside.
  • The “River District” consists of the IDEA District minus Quayside. It includes Villiers Island, McCleary, Polson Quay, and part of the Keating Channel Precinct.
  • Sidewalk Labs wants to divide Villiers Island into Villiers East and Villiers West, taking Villiers West for Google’s Canadian branch headquarters.
  • It also divides the Keating Channel Precinct into East and West, claiming “Keating East” for this project.

Much of the introduction repeats things we’ve already read: Sidewalk Labs wants to be the lead developer on Villiers West, which will be the Google Canadian branch HQ. In the rest of the area, Sidewalk Labs would

  • provide the design standards and guidelines (the rules for the district);
  • work with a government partner to plan, design and implement everything;
  • provide particular core technologies; and
  • possibly provide financing. (p. 262)

As I’ve previously noted, these roles would place Sidewalk Labs at the heart of waterfront governance rule-setting.

A reminder that Sidewalk Labs is ambivalent as to Waterfront Toronto’s continued existence

Sidewalk Labs proposes that government designate a public entity to serve — or in the case of Waterfront Toronto, continue to serve — as revitalization lead for the IDEA District. (p. 260)

Sidewalk Labs: Developer as fixer

Sidewalk Labs presents itself here as a fixer, a company that can bring together a crack team to do whatever you want them to do it. They’re the visionaries; others will do most of the work.

It’s all very platform-y:

As a company founded to leverage the latest innovations to improve the quality of life in cities, Sidewalk Labs can bring together the expertise and tools required to devise, finance, and implement creative solutions to large- scale problems. (p. 260)

The River District’s Scale Is Necessary to Realize Priority Outcomes (pp. 263-269; not listed in Table of Contents)

And now we get to the hard sell, where we are told that “many” of the things they are planning for Quayside “can only become effective or financially feasible at the scale of the 62-hectare River District.” (p. 263).

In particular, as I noted in my previous post on the economic effects of this project, the “economic anchors” that seem to drive most of the project’s economic benefits – a Google HQ and a mass-timber factory with a guaranteed market – will only arise if Waterfront Toronto gives them all this land. (p. 264)

My question: exactly why does Sidewalk Labs/Google need all these other changes? Why not just locate its headquarters in the Eastern Waterfront and work on developing tech in laboratories and real-world conditions? Why do they need to rewire the rules and regulations and governance of an entire community to do this? After all, I’m assuming that not all of Sidewalk Labs’ future clients will want to change all their laws just to install smart street lights. So why not develop your tech under that realistic restriction? Why not try to implement technological solutions that fit clients’ existing circumstances?

And if Waterfront Toronto wants to kickstart development and thinks that an anchor company will do it (which also probably won’t work, but that’s an argument for another day), then why not cut all the extraneous stuff and just bring in the anchor? If all these changes are needed just to bring Google to town, is it worth it?

“Financially feasible”

This section also reminds us that Sidewalk Labs is a for-profit company. As a result, its claim that Quayside is too small a parcel of land to develop these new technologies is based in large part on financial considerations. In other words, it would not be feasible for a for-profit company to do a lot of these things. (p. 266, e.g. re clean energy)

This reality highlights a very significant drawback to depending on for-profit companies to run your city or your research and development projects. Their bias will always be toward what will pay off financially, and on their desired timeline, not what is socially beneficial or (key point) what will only become profitable in a time horizon beyond what a company is comfortable with.

Despite all its talk about how it can depend on Google’s deep pockets to have a lengthy time horizon, Sidewalk Labs is telling us that this horizon is not as long as they’re letting on. They’re in this to make lots of money in a certain period of time. They will focus on the shiny, sellable tech. They will focus on shorter development time frames than would governments.

They will also, if business conditions warrant it, abandon Toronto. Or if politicians don’t play ball with them once they’re ensconced here, which amounts to the same thing. Because they’re a money-making business. That’s their deal. Governments can’t leave a town, but companies can and will and do if their bottom line is threatened.

Public funding of Light Rail Transit

Another reminder that the public would be on the hook for light rail costs, either in terms of public funding or financing (possibly backed by future tax revenues from all the awesome stuff that this project will yield). (p. 268)

Also, Sidewalk Labs argues that merely the provision of light rail “would become a fundamental driver of the east- ern waterfront’s economic development strategy, accelerating the creation of thriving new transit-first neighbourhoods” (p. 268). Possibly. But if so, then why not just build the line? Are all of Sidewalk Labs’ other changes needed? What is their marginal contribution to growth?

Also, I’d love to see a comparative analysis of the benefits of building Sidewalk Labs/Google’s light rail and using that money for transit in other parts of the city. This proposal is silent on that bit of information.

Bottom line is, if you want economic development, a climate-positive neighbourhood, affordable housing and a “21st century mobility network” (including LRT. They really want that LRT.), it’s everything or nothing.

A Pivotal Moment for the Future of the Eastern Waterfront (pp. 272-279; not listed in Table of Contents)

Mostly history and a continued sales pitch for developing this area. The amount of PR and promises – as opposed to actual plans – in this document is draining.

Touted ways their proposed changes would “add[] value to the Port Lands Planning Framework” (p. 275):

  • Villiers Island “as a major economic hub” (i.e. the Google effect)
  • Preparing for self-driving vehicles (see previous discussions about the policy discussions this move is pre-empting, and also the possibility the tech won’t work out)
  • Developing advanced energy infrastructure
  • Planning for greater density to unlock a transit expansion and sustainable development (read: we really want that light rail line but not, you know, enough to pay for it ourselves)
  • Expand the supply of affordable and below-market housing
  • Accelerating the development timeline (ah, timeline promises: the bane of planners and politicians)

Maybe governments can actually do development?

While the investment in the Port Lands Flood Protection Project is extraordinary, it is only a first step. Substantial additional investments are required to fully unlock the area’s potential. (p. 277)

A reminder of how Sidewalk Labs’ proposal builds on a massive, $1.25 billion, Waterfront Toronto-coordinated public investment. Any private return on investment they make if this project goes forward will be due entirely to this public investment.

The River District Can Anchor a Renewed Eastern Waterfront (pp. 280-291; not listed in Table of Contents)

And we’re back to full-page pictures. Which is a bit of a relief as it gives me a break from reading, but also depressing because it means I have to work my way through yet another empty-calorie section that repeats so much of what I’ve already read.

Added bonus: pages 282-291 are lifted wholesale from the Overview (pp. 136 (excerpt); 144-147), only with different pictures.

These Overview sections should’ve come with a note saying, “For the exact same information, please consult Volume 1, pages 280-291.”

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