Plan to re-imagine Toronto’s waterfront: How much does public know about it?

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Editor’s note: Three members of Waterfront Toronto, a government organization that signed the agreement with Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs to create a wired smart city in Toronto, were fired Thursday.

Waterfront Toronto chair Helen Burstyn confirmed Thursday that she and board members Michael Nobrega and Meric Gertler were removed from the board by Ontario’s minister of infrastructure following the release of the auditor general’s report on the proposed project.


An agreement that seeks to hand control of a large piece of Toronto’s waterfront and downtown core -- an area that includes the largest commercial development in Canada -- to a subsidiary of Alphabet, the giant tech company that owns Google, is raising growing alarm.

Sidewalk Labs is poised to receive the exclusive right, along with a government agency known as Waterfront Toronto, to reshape the vast area, which includes Exhibition Place, Ontario Place, Fort York, Harbourfront, Rogers Centre, the CN Tower, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and Union Station.

The agreement is part of a plan to create “a new, first-of-its-kind, innovative approach to city-building” and employ cutting-edge technology.

But very few details have been released about the project’s full objectives and financial benefits to Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto and Torontonians. In addition, public consultations have been very narrow in scope.

And on December 5, the Auditor General of Ontario issued a report on the project, stating it is being rushed forward without sufficient public disclosure. Auditor Bonnie Lysyk said Waterfront Toronto’s “new agreement with Sidewalk Labs raises concerns in areas such as consumer protection, data collection, security, privacy, governance, anti-trust and ownership of intellectual privacy.”

The province responded to the report by saying it will work with the municipal and federal governments to determine whether any new legislation, bylaws or policies are needed to protect the public interest before the deal is finalized.

The auditor’s report also noted: “We found internal Waterfront Toronto emails indicating that the (Waterfront Toronto) board felt it was being “urged – strongly --” by the federal and provincial governments to approve and authorize the framework agreement with Sidewalk Labs as soon as possible.”

In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto signed a framework agreement for the project. This agreement was not made public until July 2018, when it was released along with a plan development agreement. Neither document contains many details about the project.

Stated the auditor general: “The October 17, 2017, public announcement by the prime minister, the premier, the mayor, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs about the signing of the framework agreement was arranged on October 12, the day before the (Waterfront Toronto) board received the final framework agreement for review and approval.”

Former Research in Motion co-CEO and chair Jim Balsillie, a vocal critic of the project, slammed the project in a Globe and Mail op-ed on Oct. 5: “The most insightful comments during the public announcement (of the Oct. 2017 agreement between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs) came when Eric Schmidt, Google’s former executive chair, said they had realized their long-running dream for ‘someone to give us a city and put us in charge.’”

The framework agreement will give way to a master plan for the project, which is expected to be finalized next year, at which point the deal between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs cannot be revoked.

In addition, in June 2017, the three levels of government agreed to share the cost of a $1.25-billion bill to renaturalize the mouth of the Don River and protect a large area in the floodplain that covers a large part of southwestern downtown, the northern half of the Port Lands, and other areas to the east and north that include the site of the large commercial development.

There have been several public consultations on Sidewalk Labs’ plans over the last year, but they have focused exclusively on the small site called Quayside, immediately northwest of Villiers Island, with these discussions centred on the buildings and public spaces planned for Quayside, and on control of data to be gathered by thousands of sensors on the site.

But just who will get a say on the rest of the plan?

The development agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto hedges that point by saying “the creation of such a plan does not itself signal any right to implement all or any part of it. To the contrary, the parties acknowledge that in many cases, the implementation of plans … will be subject to various contingencies, such as the receipt of certain governmental approvals and clearances, approvals of or agreements with landowners or other third-party consents.”

It also states that any proposed options shall be “supported by robust business planning and financial analysis.”

However, there does not have to be a vote by Toronto city council, the Ontario legislature or the federal government on whether to approve or reject the master development plan. Rather, there only will be votes on issues that required to implement the plan, such as changes to bylaws and procurement policies.

Not surprisingly, there has been some push-back.

For example, developer Julie Di Lorenzo resigned from the Waterfront Toronto board on July 30, because she and other  board members were only given four days to review the PDA before voting on whether to accept or reject it.

On Oct. 5, TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, stating Waterfront Toronto had not being forthright about its plans.

On Oct. 19, former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian quit her role as Sidewalk Labs’ data-privacy adviser to protest the lack of a guarantee that collected data will be de-identified at source.

But many other powerful people are backing the plan.

John Brodhead, one of the architects of the federal Liberals’ plans for revamping Canadian infrastructure, took a senior role with Sidewalk Labs in April. In addition, Keerthana Rang, formerly Keerthana Kamalavasan, who was the spokesperson for John Tory’s successful 2018 mayoral re-election campaign, now works in communications for Sidewalk Labs.

Former Toronto chief city planner Paul Bedford chairs Waterfront Toronto’s Design Review Panel and is another strong proponent of the plan. So is former federal privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier. Now a lawyer at Dentons and a counsel for Waterfront Toronto, she has publicly opined that Cavoukian’s resignation will not affect the plan.

Moreover, a lawyer working under Bernier at Dentons, Karl Schober, during a panel discussion at a large public-private conference in Toronto in November -- that included talk of how public transit could be taken over by the private sector via the use of autonomous vehicles -- said companies can make money from the huge amount of data from people using these vehicles. Another speaker at the conference showed how use of autonomous vehicles for transportation can be used to privatize roads and all other infrastructure associated with transportation. Sidewalk Labs’ plans for transportation on the Toronto waterfront focuses largely on autonomous vehicles.

Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, is a vocal critic of the plans for dealing with data gathered in the project area. On Nov. 30, via Twitter, she asked prominent boosters of the plan to disclose whether they’re getting paid by Sidewalk Labs. “It takes a great amount of privilege to support these plans. It takes even more to provide that support without showing up to defend it,” Wylie wrote. “It’s time to make the stupid spreadsheet of who is getting paid by Sidewalk Labs.”

John Wilson, co-chair of the West Don Lands Committee and a board member of Waterfront For All, which supports the plan, rebuffed Wylie by tweeting: “Christ, what kind of crap is this - now everyone who has a rejoinder to your line must be on the payroll? If this is your implication, can you please get a grip. The last person who confronted me like this was DoFo (Ontario Premier Doug Ford). I'm sorry, I won't be self-disclosing for your pleasure.”

The final public consultation about the plan in 2018 takes place on Saturday, December 8, and will focus only on Quayside.

Photo: Map of Master Innovation Development Plan Site, from the July 31, 2018, Plan Development Agreement between
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs. Reproduced with permission of Waterfront Toronto.

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Rosemary Frei is an independent, full-time journalist, videographer and activist focusing on economic and social-justice issues.

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