Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 23: The MIDP Volume 1, The Plans; Chapter 2: The River District, Part 2: Scaling Urban Innovations; The Future Can Start Now

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

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Part 2: Scaling Urban Innovations (pp. 348-407)

Padding alert

  • Sixty pages.
  • Three full-page photos.
  • Four full-page pull quotes.
  • Five full-page title pages.

Part 2.1: Mobility (pp. 350-367; not listed in Table of Contents)

Accelerating mass transit extensions across the eastern waterfront (pp. 352-355; not listed in Table of Contents)

In which the pitch is made for light rail as a means to build at scale the infrastructure discussed in the Quayside chapter.

As before, they suggest self-financing, on the assumption that it “create enough value to offset the cost of building [the] expansion” (p. 352). Only the “River District,” not Quayside, provides sufficient density to justify this “self-financing” (i.e., borrowing against the anticipated extra revenues the project will spur).

Creating new neighbourhoods with people-first street networks (pp. 356-361)

Again, an expansion of their Quayside ideas and why scale is needed for them to unlock the majestic awesomeness of their plans.

Big assumptions:

That self-driving vehicles — often called autonomous vehicles — will be both safe and commercially ubiquitous available for rides by roughly 2035, and that smart planning can harness their potential to be better neighbours for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit user. (pp. 356-358)

As I’ve said before, I would not take this bet. At the very least, I would not build a multi-billion-dollar development around an eventuality that is so far out of my control and so far down the road (pun maybe intended due to sheer exhaustion).

Also worth re-highlighting that, “people-first street networks” is quite vague. Strictly speaking, Sidewalk Labs is promoting different types of roads for different forms of mobility (cars, transit, pedestrians, cyclists). “People-first street networks” (p. 360).

Expanding opportunities for cyclists (pp. 362-363; not listed in Table of Contents)

Dedicated bike paths and bikeways.

A neighbourhood moved by new mobility (pp. 364-367)

Your at-scale mobility benefits:

  • “Discounted mobility packages” compared to the higher price people would pay if Sidewalk Labs only controls Quayside. (p. 364)
  • And yet more on self-driving cars (p. 365).
  • You only get the self-supporting freight system mentioned in the Quayside chapter if you give Sidewalk Labs the River District as well. Reason: “It is not financially feasible” (p. 367) – one wouldn’t be able to make enough money off of it.
  • Quality of life: If policies are adopted only at Quayside, the surrounding districts would continue to be noisy and polluting, affecting Quayside’s quality of life. But if you control the land around it… (p. 368)
  • Similar parking policy as the Quayside proposal. (p. 368)
  • New Bureaucracy alert! The proposed Waterfront Transportation Management Association, at scale, could engage in active traffic management (read: constant surveillance of traffic) to “not only optimize the available road and curb space but also apply pricing to encourage shared rides during congested periods.” (p. 368)

Part 2.2: Public Realm (pp. 368-379; not listed in Table of Contents)

Creating an expanded, varied, and active public realm network (pp. 368-372; not listed in Table of Contents)

Basically the Quayside plan at scale, where they will be “more affordable.” (p. 371)

And would include “a new 30-hectare nature preserve that functions like a central park for the entire River District…” (p. 371).

An expanded ground-floor network would create new economic, creative, and programming possibilities (pp. 373-379)

Already covered in the Quayside chapter, although it is depending on the private sector to take up its preferred models. Includes three case studies.

My question: to what extent would private-sector developers be forced into adopting these models based on Sidewalk Labs’ control over standards and rules in these neighbourhoods?

Part 2.3: Buildings and Housing (pp. 380-389; not listed in Table of Contents)

Catalyzing a new mass timber industry and construction supply chain (pp. 381-383; not listed in Table of Contents)

In which the case for mass timber at the scale of the “River District” is made, because Quayside is too small for it to be financially viable.

It involves the creation of a “new supply chain” based in Ontario (p. 381).

The payoff: “accelerating timelines, improving predictability, reducing costs, minimizing neighbourhood disruption from work sites, and yielding a healthier, more sustainable, and stunning built environment” (pp. 381-382). Recall that the “healthier claim, from the Quayside chapter, is based on the assumption that it’s pleasant to look at a wooden skyscraper.

As for the worksite claim, I just figured out, thanks to page 383 and the fact that I just finished playing the second epilogue in Red Dead Redemption 2 (ultra-minor spoiler ahead), that they’re proposing wooden pre-cut skyscrapers! (I got a silver in that particular mission.)

So, if you’re keeping track, the two biggest parts of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal – bringing Google to town and timber skyscrapers – will only work if Waterfront Toronto buys into the whole project. Sidewalk Labs has taken the “Quayside on its own” option off the table, if it ever really considered it.

Beyond that, we’ve already heard their pitch in this area. Let’s move on.

Achieving new levels of housing affordability, choice, and inclusivity (pp. 384-389)

Here, again, we’re told that if you truly want to capture all the benefits of Sidewalk Labs’ affordable-housing plan, you need to go River District big.

Here’s something interesting: this affordable housing can be provided through:

  • “the increased value of public land due to factory-built timber construction” ($639 million);
  • “a condo resale fee” ($321 million);
  • “new value captured by more efficient unit design” (which they call “affordability by design”) ($475 million). (p. 384)

In other words, they’re betting on higher publicly owned land values because developers will be able to build more with less and will be thus willing to pay more for the land.

They’re also betting that condo owners will be cool with a new resale tax.

And that the timber play will work out in terms of the technologies and required regulatory approvals.

And that they can shave a significant amount off of the normal cost of building residential units via Murphy Beds etc. at scale. (For what little it’s worth, “Affordability by design” reminds me of IKEA furniture.)

Or to rephrase again, they’re betting that nothing will go wrong in any of these (I’d like to see an independent engineering review of these “more efficient unit” designs). If any of them don’t happen, their housing affordability plan will be in trouble.

Part 2.4: Sustainability (pp. 390-403; not listed in Table of Contents)

Achieving climate positivity requires bold solutions only possible at scale (pp. 391-399; not listed in Table of Contents)

The argument – and stop me if you’ve heard this one: For climate positive development, you have to develop the River District. Again, the issue is economic feasibility (presumably in terms of Sidewalk Labs’ bottom line? Because if it’s socially worth doing, you can make a case to fund it out of general tax revenue):

these initiatives proposed are not economically feasible to deploy in Quayside unless they are part of a comprehensive approach that spans a large enough geographic area to support inventing, implementing, and operating this entirely new ecosystem of sustainable infrastructure. (p. 391, emphasis added)

The costs in question: “infrastructure, … designing, building and installing digital technologies to manage these new systems” (p. 393).

Cost in sticking just to Quayside: $19 million to keep Quayside energy bills in line wit hthe rest of Toronto.

They need scale for (pp. 393-394):

  • Increasing transportation options
  • To reach an all-eelctirc mobility system
  • To make full electricification affordable
  • To reduce energy demand (via energy-efficient buildings)
  • To design an advanced power grid
  • To develop a thermal grid

Regulation-relevant:  Sidewalk Labs would like the City to move toward developing
“operational energy targets based on real-time metering for new buildings — not on pre-construction designs.” These would be based on an energy auditing tool Sidewalk Labs would like to develop (but hasn’t yet).

River district is required to: “help to accumulate a critical mass of building data, leading to powerful insights that can inform building design and enable new approaches to energy use regulation.” (p. 395)

Also promised: “an anaerobic waste digestion facility” (p. 396). Sidewalk Labs also wants to “partner with the city’s Toronto Water division to extend the proposed thermal grid infrastructure to tap into the waste heat generated at Ashbridges [Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant], with a commitment not to impact the plant’s operations.”

I don’t know anything about such things, so I’ll leave them to others to examine. 

An opportunity to use waste as a resource (pp. 400-401; not listed in Table of Contents)

It promises more efficient recycling, including the construction of a local materials recovery facility (MRF), which only works… at scale.

And that cool real-time feedback recycling system that Sidewalk Labs promised with Quayside? Well, “Quayside is too small to support its own MRF… .” As a result, its recycling would leave the area, and its waste would be recycled (or not, as is often the case) as it is today, which is often not great or not at all.

An expanded public realm could minimize the need for grey stormwater infrastructure (pp. 402-403; not listed in Table of Contents)

At scale.

New bureaucracy alert: The Open Space Alliance would collect an upfront green infrastructure fee from developers to manage green infrastructure that would reduce the size and cost of stormwater infrastructure. Again, such proposals are beyond my competence, but in terms of bureaucracy, the question to ask is, what capabilities does the Open Space Alliance need to operate this infrastructure? As Dr. Natasha Tusikov’s overview of Sidewalk Labs’ various proposed new bureaucracies indicates, the Open Space Alliance is being asked to do quite a lot.

Part 2.5: Urban Innovation (pp. 404-407; not listed in Table of Contents)

From the Time Before, that half-remembered era before my life was subsumed into this cursed report, I dimly recall that Sidewalk Labs proudly trumpeted that it wanted to build the first city “from the internet up.” Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff used to say as much. What’s more, the phrase appears no less than ten times in the part of Sidewalk Labs’ response to Waterfront Toronto’s Request for Proposals. Waterfront Toronto was obviously impressed; it hired Sidewalk Labs to develop Quayside, after all.

Quayside was to be the digital city of the future.

Which makes it odd that not only is Sidewalk Labs no longer using the phrase “from the internet up” – in this report’s 1,496 pages it appears not at all – but that it spends so little space discussing its digital plan. A mere three pages of this 60-page section are devoted to digital issues.

Sidewalk Labs is a Google company. Its competitive advantage isn’t building materials (covered here in a nine-page section) or cars (covered here in a 17-page section). It’s data and connectivity.

Still, what’s here? A promise of ubiquitous connectivity and standardized mounts, an “Urban USB port.” Digital services catalyzing the ecosystem (not mentioned: It will probably help that Google is here.) Open data standards (who sets the standard?)

Did I mention that these will only work at scale?

The proposed mount requires significant geographic distribution to gain the widespread adoption needed for device manufacturers (such as Wi-Fi antenna producers) to incorporate the standard into their own designs, just as existing USB ports needed to prove their worth before laptop and phone manufacturers made them standard features. The River District would provide the necessary scale for development and adoption of the standardized mount. (p. 405)

Question: Is the claim that a small Toronto neighbourhood provides sufficient scale for the adoption of such a standard? It seems… tiny in the context of the whole wide world.

One last bit

The Urban Data Trust should be launched in Quayside, where it could begin to work through use cases. Over the longer term, once the entity has benefited from many use cases in Quayside and certain parts of the River District, Sidewalk Labs expects that the Urban Data Trust could have broader coverage. (p. 407)

Seeming to privilege Quayside makes a virtue of the necessity of appearing to have a separate Quayside plan. Of course the Urban Data Trust, should it come to pass, would be launched in Quayside, because Quayside would be the first part of the Waterfront development plan, and it would be the first to collect data. This is no promise at all.

The Future Can Start Now (pp. 408-415)

More public relations content. I’m done. See you for Chapter 3, Economic Development.

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