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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Where the Sidewalk Ended

Alphabet’s aborted plans in Toronto

Pamela Divinsky

Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy

Josh O’Kane

Random House Canada

416 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

With Sidways, the Globe and Mail reporter Josh O’Kane catalogues the personalities, procedures, and problems surrounding a failed effort to create a city-within-a-city on Toronto’s waterfront. The story begins with the ambitions of Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, leaders of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, who envisioned a community on the shores of Lake Ontario that would operate efficiently and sustainably, while addressing the human needs that really matter. It would be an urban model guided not by conventional rules, regulations, and bureaucratic decision making but by revelatory data. Who wouldn’t want traffic to actually move? To have retractable canopies that automatically protect pedestrians from the weather, sensors that monitor for noise, or garbage that’s picked up whenever it needs to be?

Data and privacy issues, complexities of the procurement process, and the egos of those in charge all got in the way of Page and Schmidt’s vision (notwithstanding the preliminary conversations they allegedly had with Justin Trudeau). Page committed $300 million (U.S.) to create Sidewalk Labs, a new developer affiliated with Alphabet. Dozens of people worked around the clock to draft the 437-page grand plan dubbed the Yellow Book, which promised, as O’Kane puts it, “better lives through novel technologies.” And Dan Doctoroff, who had led New York’s failed bid for the 2012 Olympic Games and spearheaded the redevelopment of Hudson Yards and the über-successful High Line, was brought on board to help make it all happen.

In March 2017, Waterfront Toronto — the tripartite agency that represents the city, the province of Ontario, and Ottawa — issued a request for proposals for the redevelopment of Quayside, a twelve-acre plot two kilometres southeast of the financial district. “Waterfront’s ambitions for the RFP were so broad,” O’Kane writes, “that they lacked clarity.” Three bidders were then invited to participate in an arduous process: “four rounds of meetings, each with precisely defined durations — seven hours, seven hours, sixteen hours over two days, seven hours.”

Sidewalk’s proposal won the day in October 2017 — and numerous conflicts and struggles followed. For one thing, Waterfront Toronto was led by an ever-changing cast of characters — including Helen Burstyn, Michael Nobrega, Meric Gertler, George Zegarac, and Stephen Diamond — who each came with different dispositions, political alliances, and talents. At first, Ann Cavoukian, an international data privacy expert, believed in Sidewalk’s vision — and then she didn’t. Julie Di Lorenzo, a Waterfront board member, and John Ruffolo, a venture capitalist whose own consortium had initially bid on the RFP, both severed ties with the project: “A director pushing for Waterfront to scrutinize Sidewalk in the name of public interest inadvertently created a situation in which a high-profile adviser quit in the name of public interest.” Meanwhile, Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto battled over process and the amount of land allocated for redevelopment, with Sidewalk claiming it needed twelve additional acres.

There were criticisms early on, particularly about Sidewalk’s desire to “build a neighbourhood in a vacuum.” Jim Balsillie, the former BlackBerry executive, expressed his dislike of the project in an October 2018 op-ed, describing it as “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” Sidewalk maintained that significant data collection was instrumental for efficient operations. But might it impose a level of monitoring that threatens individual freedom and democracy itself? Who would own the information: the public or a private corporation? While all of us trade convenience for privacy every time we open an app, google something, or ask Siri for help, we have yet to settle countless political and legal questions. Indeed, “in an attempt to force Waterfront and its three government parents to shut the project down,” the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed an application for judicial review, hoping to resolve at least some of them.

O’Kane is critical of Page and Schmidt’s approach to urban development, which one might characterize as “Money will override rules and protections.” He is also critical of Doctoroff as being aggressive and unable to appreciate or respect a Canadian audience and cultural sensibility. (However, by the end of the book, one senses that O’Kane feels a tad guilty about his criticism of Doctoroff, who was subsequently diagnosed with ALS.)

All the while, O’Kane praises Waterfront Toronto for being an entity that could “get development done faster,” that “helped get parks built,” and, most generously, “made the city’s lakefront street a lot more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians.” As someone who has lived on that very road for over twenty years, I find this a remarkable assessment. The attempt, a decade ago, to transform Queen’s Quay into a “calm street” actually resulted in “the gauntlet,” because it is now lethally dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists, runners, and motorists alike. And one only has to look out the window to see how the thirst for tax revenue has driven local tower development — which is decidedly not about beautiful, usable space for human beings.

The missing ingredient in the failed Sidewalk story, and in O’Kane’s telling of it, is public consultation. He notes that Sidewalk “made efforts to win over people who lived near Quayside” and that “many were invited to working groups.” But, having been invited to those consultations myself, I would say, as elegantly as I can, that neither Waterfront Toronto nor Sidewalk heard or respected our voices, perspectives, needs, and desires. Again, this is not new: ahead of the flawed redesign of Queen’s Quay, Waterfront Toronto and its partners were dismissive of those of us actually living in the area.

Toronto, of course, was home to one of the great urban thinkers, Jane Jacobs, who many years ago argued, backed up with incontrovertible evidence, that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Whether we live on Toronto’s Queen’s Quay or on Montreal’s Plateau, in Halifax or in Vancouver, Canadians crave indoor and outdoor spaces that cultivate community and culture, that blend convenience with beauty. Yes, we want data and infrastructure to serve us better. But designing with and for people is complicated and messy, and one wishes that O’Kane, who has clearly spent a great deal of time exploring and decoding how city building works, had shared his insights on how to do it more successfully.

Last December, two years after Sidewalk Labs ultimately abandoned its smart-city ambitions, Waterfront Toronto announced that twelve of the acres it wanted to transform would now be developed by a new entity, Quayside Impact Limited Partnership, which promises “Canada’s largest all-electric, zero-carbon master-planned community.” Naturally enough, this announcement followed minimal public consultation and little transparency on the procurement process. No one has yet explained what “master-planned” really means — or genuinely asked for our thoughts on the matter.

Pamela Divinsky is the founder of the Divinsky Group. She holds a PhD in economics and history from the University of Chicago.

Related Letters and Responses

@joshokane via Twitter