Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliated company, is abandoning its plan to build a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront, citing what it calls unprecedented economic uncertainty.
The project, dubbed Quayside, still didn’t have all of the government approvals it needed to go ahead. Many had raised concerns about the privacy implications of the project and how much of the city’s developing waterfront Sidewalk Labs wanted to control.
The so-called “smart city” was set to feature a range of cutting edge technology, from residential towers made of timber to the use of autonomous cars and heated sidewalks.
“As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed,” company CEO Dan Doctoroff said in a statement.
Toronto Mayor John Tory was quick to issue a statement saying he regrets the company’s decision, but anticipates others will step in to develop the area.
“Toronto’s economy will come back strong after COVID-19 and we will continue to be a magnet for smart people and smart companies,” he said in an email.
Tory also said he plans to push Waterfront Toronto and both the provincial and federal governments to make sure any new development in the area will create new jobs and a “carbon-neutral neighbourhood” with affordable housing units and “better transportation and sustainability features.”
“The Sidewalk experience helped us advance our approach both to the need for improved waterfront transportation and digital governance,” he said.
Coun. Joe Cressy is a member of the Waterfront Toronto Board. He said in a statement he learned the company was pulling out of the project Thursday morning.
“Over the past two years, Waterfront Toronto has invested a considerable amount of work in the development of Quayside,” Cressy said. “Legitimate concerns were raised regarding Sidewalk Labs’ proposals, including concerns over data collection and digital governance.”
That led to reviews and “significant public consultation,” Cressy said, to understand the “risks and opportunities” of the proposal.
“While this does mean that Waterfront Toronto will start again to reimagine Quayside, none of this work will go to waste,” he said. “The engagement and feedback we have received from residents and community organizations has given us a solid framework that will shape our work going forward.”
The Quayside project was formally announced at a ceremony in October 2017, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Kathleen Wynne, Tory, and representatives from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs laid out plans for the area.
Trudeau said at the time that the proposed high-tech neighbourhood would “create a test bed” for new technologies.
But concerns abounded about the project through the years. An advisory panel raised a range of issues with the plan last year, saying plans were “frustratingly abstract” and that some of the innovations being proposed were “irrelevant or unnecessary.”
A report from Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel questioned the way Sidewalk had proposed to manage data that would have been generated from the neighbourhood it wanted to build.
In his statement announcing the project’s demise, Doctoroff thanked Toronto’s residents, community groups and civic leaders for their support.
“Sidewalk Labs was attracted to Toronto by the diversity, growth, and opportunity the city has to offer, and that view has been affirmed and strengthened at every step along the way,” he said. “Toronto is one of the world’s great centres of technological innovation, and nothing about this decision will in any way diminish that.”