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Estimates show Waterfront Toronto’s portion of land, sought by Google’s sister company, worth over half a billion dollars

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Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are hard at work putting together their master plan for a smart city in Toronto’s Quayside. One of the items that they’ll need to address before completion of the final agreement is what the land itself is worth.

The 12-acre Quayside is a prime piece of Toronto real estate. Assessments conducted by two of the city’s leading real estate appraisers and obtained by The Logic—along with comparable sales nearby—show that the Quayside land, which is largely owned by Waterfront Toronto, could be worth as much as $675 million. If sold to Sidewalk Labs, it would be one of the biggest land deals in Toronto’s recent history.

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Talking Point

The 12-acre Quayside lands that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are planning to develop into Toronto’s first smart city neighbourhood is estimated to be worth over half a billion dollars, according to assessments and comparable sales nearby. An agreement on the real estate value will be needed before any final agreement can be reached. If sold, it would be one of the biggest land deals in Toronto’s recent history.  

Waterfront Toronto—a tri-government organization mandated with the revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront into mixed-use communities and public spaces—and Sidewalk Labs are currently negotiating a Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) that, if completed, would permit the Alphabet-owned company to start building it’s smart-city project.

When asked whether the two parties were working toward leasing, buying or arranging any other type of transfer of land, Carol Webb, a Waterfront Toronto spokesperson, said that no real estate negotiations are taking place between the two companies. “We are focused on the planning work currently underway,” said Webb.

To the same question, Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Dan Levitan said, “Not at this time, except insofar as our MIDP planning work involves developing a framework for future development partnerships and real estate transactions.”

Development Blocks from Waterfront Toronto's Request for Proposals Innovation and Funding Partner for the Quayside Development Opportunity Waterfront Toronto

One piece of land already occupied by Sidewalk Labs is 307 Lakeshore Blvd. East.

In June, Sidewalk Toronto—the joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs—opened their offices on the plot of private land that falls within the 12 acres of Quayside owned by Plazacorp Investments Ltd. According to documents obtained by The Logic, the three-year lease—which began on March 15, 2018—was registered for just two dollars.

It’s common for landlords to register a lease for a small amount when they don’t want to make the lease terms public.

When asked about the two-dollar transaction, both Plazacorp and Sidewalk Labs said the real terms for the lease were agreed to at “market-rate.”

“It was purely an arms-length lease negotiated based on what we thought were fair market terms taking everything into consideration.” said Plazacorp spokesperson Yehuda Belzberg.

Plazacorp also has a venture capital arm that has invested in Miovision Technologies Inc., a Kitchener-Waterloo-based smart intersection and traffic technology company. Kurtis McBride, CEO of Miovision, told The Logic in June that he had met with Sidewalk Labs on more than one occasion.

When asked if there was any connection between the lease with Sidewalk Labs and the Miovision investment, Belzberg said the lease “had nothing to do with any sort of relationship between Plaza Ventures and another entity.”

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The move of Google Canada’s Toronto headquarters to the waterfront was included in the October 2017 announcement on the selection of Sidewalk Labs as the winning bid for the Quayside development.

The relocation of as many as 400 Toronto employees—across sales, AI research, marketing and engineering—will require a real estate transaction. Although no specific plans have been outlined, Aaron Brindle, a Google Canada spokesperson, reiterated the company’s commitment to moving its Canadian headquarters to the eastern waterfront as part of the development plans.

“We’re inspired by Sidewalk Labs vision for the Toronto waterfront and this commitment to developing innovative solutions to meet the city’s challenges,” said Brindle. “We think this is a very exciting time to be a Torontonian.”

The $675-million land estimate

Estimated appraisals conducted for mixed-use developments across Toronto obtained by The Logic show that prices currently range from around $100 per square foot on the low end to $250 per square foot on the high end—and as much as $350 per square foot in the city’s most expensive and coveted neighbourhoods, such as Yorkville.

 

The Logic has learned that a property near the Quayside, albeit one with obstructed views and not directly on the lakefront, was recently bought by a developer for over $160 per square foot of zoned-approved density.

 

The Quayside is largely owned by Waterfront Toronto, with small portions of city- and privately-owned lands. The 12 acres are zoned for the development of buildings totalling approximately 3.3 million square feet of “mixed-use gross floor area.” Of this, Waterfront Toronto owns 10.5 acres, zoned for 2.7 million square feet, according to its financial statements.

 

Based on these land assessments’ per-square-foot cost estimates, the recently sold mixed-use property and the 2.7 million square feet zoned for Waterfront Toronto, the Quayside’s value would be somewhere between $432 million and $675 million.

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs’ vision for the Quayside is a mixed-use development providing both residential and retail spaces. Waterfront Toronto mandates that 20 per cent of all residential gross floor area on land within its control be allocated as affordable housing.

“Land values are constantly changing based on market conditions,” said Carol Webb, a spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto, in an email. “It is Waterfront Toronto’s standard practice to commission an appraisal immediately prior to undertaking any potential transaction to ensure the most current valuation.”

According to Waterfront Toronto, if the MIDP is approved, a series of subsequent commercial agreements would need to be put in place prior to any transaction. There would only be a real estate transaction if all the required consents and approvals were obtained, including from government authorities and third-party land owners.

Though rare, the land could also be leased to Sidewalk Toronto by Waterfront Toronto in a final agreement. An example of such an agreement is Battery Park in New York City, which is owned and managed by the Battery Park City Authority, a public benefit corporation created by the state of New York that closely resembles Waterfront Toronto. In these cases, developers arrange ground leases that generally have long-term agreements spanning around 100 years with predictable price increases.

Paula Fletcher, a Toronto city councillor whose ward buttresses the Quayside development, wants more transparency on the process. “I just want to know how they’re planning to calculate the land value for whoever gets awarded any development on that 12 acres,” said Fletcher. “I don’t know how that’s happening. That isn’t clear to me.”

In October 2017, Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, said the development of the Quayside “primarily is a real-estate play” in an article in The Globe and Mail. He hasn’t used that language since.

“I think Dan himself would say the project is far more complicated and multifaceted than a real-estate play,” said Levitan when asked if Doctoroff still considers Sidewalk Toronto primarily a real-estate play.

“That description doesn’t begin to capture objectives related to economic development, affordability, technology, infrastructure, transportation, and much more.”

The MIDP—scheduled to be completed in Spring 2019 upon receiving approval from both companies’ boards—may be the first details provided of any real estate transaction on the Quayside.