Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 30: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 3: Buildings and Housing

In which I start off thinking I won’t have anything to say and end up writing a lot. Also, on the desirability, or lack thereof, of super-tiny, totally “livable” studio apartments. And! The economist in me has something to say about rent caps.

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

Chapter 3: Buildings and Housing (pp. 202-293)

Introduction (p. 204-207)

Part 1: Accelerating Construction Timelines (pp. 208-235)

…through the use of an unproven technology (“mass timber” for 30-storey buildings) and precut buildings. (p. 205). Which would make property more valuable, leading to higher taxes, which could be funnelled into affordable housing. (p. 205)

Sidewalk Labs identifies customized buildings and costly steel and concrete as the enemy (high costs for design). The solution: cookie-cutter buildings made out of wood. (p. 208)

Question: How would Sidewalk Labs be involved in the supply chain? (e.g., p. 209 comment)

Goal 1: Catalyze a new sustainable industry around mass timber (pp. 210-219)

Another reminder that this proposals projections are based on best-case scenarios: “Using wood for all 2.6 million square feet of building development in Quayside would be equivalent to removing over 20,000 cars from the road annually.” (p. 210, emphasis added)

Two pages on “Ensuring fire resistance with ‘Shikkui plaster’” (pp. 214-215).

I’m a bit unclear about the status of this technology. Is it ready to go? What still needs to be done to prepare it for mass distribution and use?


This may be a bit out of the blue, but this section reminded me of a friend from undergrad whose family was in construction. New homes, he said, were designed to last just over two “generations”: they’ll start to fall apart after they’ve been sold twice (e.g., about 40 or so years I think). How long are these buildings supposed to last? I didn’t see anything in here about that.

Goal 2: Launch a factory to produce a complete library of building parts (pp. 220-232)

Regulation change: Sidewalk Labs wants to speed up regulatory approvals by getting the various cookie-cutter building pieces pre-approved, rather than, I’m guessing, the regulator/city approving the final project. (p. 22)

Sidewalk Labs promises “unique designs” based on a selection of pre-set “parts.” (p. 220)

A driver of affordable housing (we pass the savings on to you!): “By injecting more certainty into the building process, Sidewalk Labs hopes to enable projects that meet both the city’s objectives for affordability and the waterfront’s standards for aesthetic excellence.” (p. 221).

Descriptions of the parts are on pages 222-223. Architects’ vision exercises on pages 224-225. This is beyond my expertise. Engineers and architects: Do these plans make sense?

Do these numbers make sense?

I’d feel a lot more comfortable about the solidity of Sidewalk Labs’ plans if this sentence were a lot less conditional:

Sidewalk Labs believes the structural assembly of a building could ultimately reach speeds of one floor a day, compared with a typical on-site construction timeline of one floor per week. (p. 227, emphasis added)

As far as I can tell, their big, oft-repeated claim that they can complete projects 35% faster than today’s standard is based on this guess – no citations provided in the report:

To complete a 12-storey building — which involves basic structural assembly as well as the installation of all finishes, the connection of all electromechanical equipment, and the execution of all tests — Sidewalk Labs estimates that its facto-ry-based process can reduce construction time from 20 months to 13 months, delivering projects 35 percent faster than today’s methods. (p. 227)

Goal 3: Coordinate the supply chain with a digital delivery system (pp. 233-235)

Proposed: A “Sidewalk Digital Fabrication system” to track the entire production process, from timber to building creation. (p. 234).

Sidewalk Labs would control the supply and value chain

Ah, here we go. In answer to my above question, Sidewalk Labs would “build the underlying infrastructure to support this advance system,” outsourcing some parts to other companies. (p. 234)

So: Ontario labour, Sidewalk Labs-run mill (?), Sidewalk Labs-controlled value chain?

And would the building parts be patented? Who would control the IP in them?

Part 2: Helping Neighbourhoods and Households Evolve (pp. 236-261)

The dream

Within a single neighbourhood people could find affordable space to pursue their professional dreams, whether a single co-working desk to plot out a startup or a short-term stall to sell a hand-crafted confection. Homes could meet the needs of growing families and single-person households alike. (p. 236)

I’m really trying not to be churlish when I ask this, but doesn’t this describe a lot of downtown Toronto already?

Smaller – sorry, cozy – apartments equals more (affordable) units

an efficient approach to unit design would enable developers to create more overall units while retaining liveability, unlocking new value that could help meet the ambitious goals of affordable and below-market housing programs. (p. 237)

Goal 1: Create an adaptable “Loft” space built for all uses (pp. 238-245)

New regulation alert: “Sidewalk Labs plans to implement minimum targets on its Loft spaces for commercial usage, so they always reflect some level of mixture across commercial and residential uses.”

In other words, Sidewalk Labs wants to set bylaws for commercial and non-commercial building usage.

Huge savings mentioned on page 242. Again, would these designs work? Are they allowed under current bylaws? If not, why not? #notmyfield [Spoilers: I don’t think their proposals are currently street legal.]

Goal 2: Accelerate renovations with a flexible interior wall system (pp. 246-250)

Again, #notmyfield, so I have no idea how well this type of system would work, although I keep coming back to the thought that Sidewalk Labs got this job because they’re a Google company, and they don’t have any expertise in these types of issues. Expertise welcome…

Goal 3: Enable a safe, vibrant mix of uses with real- time building codes (pp. 251-252)

Ah, the real-time building code, which is zoned for specific, measurable variables and not land uses (building uses, not prescribed land uses? (p. 251)). Urban governance experts: can zoning bylaws be reconstructed in this way? What would be lost in doing so (Sidewalk Labs has already told us what would be gained)?

Question: What would the surveillance impacts of this surveillance network be?

I’d also like to see the worst-case scenarios of mixing industry/commercial with residential. A mom-and-pop craft jeweller (p. 252) seems pretty innocuous, but I’m betting that creative readers can imagine worse-case scenarios.

Still, it’s weird that Sidewalk Labs’ innovative vision involves something that reminds me of the tenement housing in New York from over a century ago. Those buildings were also mixed-use. But, again, this is an area I don’t know much about. Enlightenment welcome!

And just in common-sense mode, I’m not sure I’d put “restaurants” and “single-dwelling units” in a “use-neutral” category. Not sure I’d want to live above, say, a 24-hour diner.

Goal 4: Design affordable and flexible housing units (pp. 253-261)

Let’s get small

“micro-units” (smaller units that rent for less while remaining livable through efficient design) and co-living programs (which feature shared building amenities, such as communal kitchens, to enhance community while keeping rents lower). (p. 253)

This proposal would irk me a lot less if they weren’t trying to sell us on housing built around always having roommates and shared kitchen as an opportunity “to enhance community.” This was obviously written by someone who has never lived with other people. More likely, they’re suppressing a traumatic memory of the skanky refrigerators that everyone who has ever had a roommate has had to deal with.

Also, my first solo apartment – Bathurst and Harbord, as it happens – was smaller than many hotel bathrooms. It was designed for efficiency. It also couldn’t accommodate more than three people at any time. It was “liveable,” and my landlord was fantastic (shoutout to Carlos! Best landlord in Toronto), but I wouldn’t go overboard selling it as a fantastic solution for modern living.

Tone that pitch down, Don Draper.

Also, (and please note that I’m writing this in real time) I’m assuming that the reason these types of apartments are innovative is because they’re currently not allowed under existing bylaws? Would any existing rules have to change (and why are these rules there in the first place)? Or am I just being cynical? Again, #notmyfield.

Finally, “free in-building storage”? (p. 255) I’ll be my remaining shred of sanity that this would be included in the condo fees or rental price.

More oversell

Sidewalk Labs’ approach to public realm design is also meant to improve comfort for residents in efficient units. An expanded set of parks, plazas, and public spaces — comfortable year-round thanks to weather-mitigation systems— means people could spend more time outdoors, in spaces they can decide how to use themselves. (p. 259)

Speaking from experience, these outdoor won’t make up for apartments described as “liveable.”

Burying the lede

Answers! It turns out that the reason Sidewalk Labs’ proposals for building apartments that qualify as “liveable” is they’re currently not allowed:

Sidewalk Labs proposes to seek relief from existing relevant guidelines and standards related to unit size to enable developers in the project area to create these new occupancy types within the IDEA District. (p. 259)

I’m pretty sure that my bathroom-sized apartment was legal in 1996 (my landlord was very conscientious). There’s a very good reason that smaller apartments aren’t currently legal: it would be like living in a pod.

Sorry, I meant “affordability by design” (p. 260). Or, as it’s also known, “currently illegal.”

So, there you go. Sidewalk Labs can only deliver the goods if it implements building designs that are not allowed under the law as it stands. Couldn’t it have tried to stay within existing building codes, just a teensy bit? I guess that’s what makes them #innovators.

Part 3: Expanding Tools for Housing Affordability (pp. 262-287)

Or, as they’re also known, “‘liveable’ pods based on not-currently-allowable designs”

Sidewalk Labs proposes to create new types of units designed with affordability in mind from the start. (p. 263)

Goal 1: Create an ambitious program to meet the housing affordability challenge (pp. 269-277)

I’m not sure this sounds as impressive as you think it sounds

Sidewalk Labs commits to achieving this program mix in Quayside using a combination of existing government funding sources and new innovations. (p. 269)

Read as: Spending public money already earmarked for affordable housing and proposing a housing project that’s not allowed under current rules.

Rental caps: An evidence-free proposal

New regulation:

In Quayside, to ensure these units remain affordable for middle-income families, Sidewalk Labs plans to implement a rent cap. For example, rents for a two-bedroom unit would range from $1,492 to $2,238, according to existing rental bands established by the city. (p. 272)

Hm. If I were feeling more energetic, over 1,000 pages into this report, I’d link to the research showing something that every MA economics student is taught, which is that rent-controlled apartments (which is what this is) tend to paradoxically reduce the availability of affordable housing. At the very least, Sidewalk Labs needed to engage with this analysis. But that would’ve required the preparation of an actual report, and not a sales brochure.

Oh, fine. Here’s a Brookings report (centrist US think tank) that raises several issues with rent control. And here’s one from the Urban Institute (US) synthesizing research on rent control. tl;dr: Both suggest positive benefits for those in the rent-controlled apartments, and mixed results (often negative) for the community as a whole.

Here’s how I found them: I Googled them. Took me three seconds: Two to sigh and roll my eyes in frustration for having to put in more work to evaluating something that reads like it was assembled by a public-relations committee than the person who wrote it, and one to do the typing (I’m a fast typer).

Try it yourself: “effect of rent controls on affordable housing.” Skip the Google-featured result, which seems to be from a front for the US apartment building industry. There’s loads of stuff here.

To be clear, it’s fine to include this idea in a development plan, but you have to give it some context to show why it’s a good idea, especially since any economist would immediately be skeptical of it. As it stands, there’s nothing here to suggest why this idea would work, which makes it look like a promise that is easily made and poorly researched.

Goal 2: Achieve this program with innovation that yields greater affordability (pp. 278-287)

Where would the savings come from?

  1. Affordability by design (i.e., currently illegal designs for “liveable” apartments)
  2. “factory-based” timber construction
  3. New tax alert: condo resale fees. (p. 278)

And most of the funding comes from “factory-driven land value” (p. 279) – i.e., this bet on mass-produced timber buildings better work out.

Quayside would pony up $77 million to catalyze funding sources.

New bureaucracy alert: “a proposed housing trust,” one of whose jobs would be to “package some of these new funding sources to meet affordability objectives” (p. 280). So it would need some finance experience, in addition to (presumably) being a landlord.

You can’t keep a good number down

That 35% claim shows up again (p. 282). It would be interesting to search the report to see how many times each such claim is repeated.

Condo resale fee

Question: Quayside/Waterfront cannot be viewed in isolation from the rest of the Toronto condo market. How would an extra resale fee affect the entire market, including demand for Quayside condos? If I had to bet, I’d guess that it would depress the overall price of Quayside condos by about 1%. But of course there’s no such analysis mentioned here that I could see. Such an analysis would attempt an estimate at the total extra fees a Quayside resident would have to pay compared with other Torontonians.

Waterfront Housing Trust (p. 285)

Ah, here we go. The Waterfront Housing Trust would administer a “housing trust fund: a new financial vehicle to assemble and disburse funding for below-market housing across the Sidewalk Toronto project area.”

It “could assemble funding from a variety of public and private sources and “lock-box” this funding for below-market housing within the IDEA District … .” As well as “alternative funding sources.”

It would “provide capital grants and other financial support for developers, both private and not-for-profit, seeking to meet significant affordability commitments.”

Again, as I’ve said so many times by now, the word “could” is a hint that this is an idea, not a plan. It should be analyzed as such. This is not a substantive proposal.

Public Engagement (pp. 288-293)

In which public engagement is summarized on building and housing issues. And in which I’m reminded again that we don’t know the names of the people on Sidewalk Labs’ various panels, or have a complete list of all the meetings (public and private) they’ve held.

Bonus: I read the endnotes

Another reminder that this project assumes total success. And then some:

Unless otherwise noted, all calculations that refer to the full proposed IDEA District scale are inclusive of the entirety of its proposed geography, including all currently privately held parcels (such as Keating West). (p. 294)

That would be the Keating West that is otherwise excluded from Sidewalk Labs’ plans (it’s in private hands).

Phrased differently: While the report notes in other places that outside of Villiers West and Quayside, private owners would be invited to participate in these plans, the figures in this Chapter assume that everyone gets on board.

My recommendation: Pick a number and discount all of Sidewalk Labs’ predictions by that amount. There’s no way that it will hit these targets. Nothing every goes exactly according to plan. Readers would do well not to take this plan’s claims at face value.

This entry was posted in Quayside and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.