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Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto reach tentative deal on smart-city development: Sources

The Quayside neighbourhood on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. DroneBoy for Sidewalk Labs
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Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have reached a tentative deal on a controversial smart-city project that will see the Google sister company develop a smaller amount of Toronto’s waterfront than it had proposed, and that will treat any data collected through the project as a public asset, The Logic has learned.

According to several sources familiar with the negotiations, Sidewalk Labs has agreed to limit the development to the 12 acres of land known as Quayside. A dollar amount for the value of the land in question was not disclosed. 

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Talking Point

Sidewalk had asked Waterfront to allocate 190 acres of land for development. The agreement will see Sidewalk develop only the 12-acre plot Waterfront had originally proposed. The tentative deal will also see data from the smart city treated as a public asset, instead of being collected by an independent organization, as Sidewalk had proposed. Once approved, the parties will have until spring 2020 to agree on a full development plan, or sign a new agreement further extending their timeline.

The two sides have been in negotiations since the release of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) in June, and have until Thursday to finalize an agreement that would allow the project to move forward. 

Though Waterfront’s board will need to approve the agreement on Thursday morning, that is expected to be a formality. 

Sidewalk’s MIDP had requested that Waterfront, the organization tasked by three levels of government with oversight of the redevelopment of Toronto’s lakeshore, allocate 190 acres for an area it called the IDEA District. The company proposed it lead the development of 16 per cent of that land, including the Quayside plot and a western portion of Villiers Island. The agreement will see Sidewalk develop only the 12-acre plot Waterfront had originally proposed at what multiple sources called “fair market value.”

The Sidewalk MIDP had proposed the creation of an independent Urban Data Trust that would oversee the collection of all data produced by the smart city. However, the two parties have also agreed in principle that any data obtained in the proposed smart city would be treated as a public asset. As a result, Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation firm owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will be considered a vendor with no proprietary access, sources said.

After Sidewalk released its MIDP in June, Waterfront Toronto board chair Stephen Diamond wrote an open letter addressing several of the organization’s early “concerns.” They included Sidewalk’s proposals to expand the plan beyond the 12-acre Quayside neighbourhood and to extend public transit into the area.

Diamond’s letter also said Waterfront would need additional information to determine if Sidewalk’s data collection and governance proposals complied with the law and with his agency’s own digital governance principles. 

In August, the two parties announced they would extend their agreement until March 2020 to allow more time to negotiate a deal, but added a termination provision requiring them to settle their differences on the issues identified in Diamond’s letter by October 31.

Having now tentatively resolved those issues, the two parties have until spring 2020 to agree on a full development plan or sign a new agreement further extending their planning timeline.

“Waterfront Toronto has pushed for a realignment on these critical issues in order to ensure that we have met our mandate to the public good, before determining if the MIDP can proceed to an evaluation,” said Andrew Tumilty, a spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto.

“These discussions continue, and to be clear, tomorrow, our Board of Directors is scheduled to meet to decide on whether or not these issues have been resolved, and the MIDP can proceed to a formal evaluation,” said Tumilty.

Sidewalk Labs declined to comment.

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Though launched amid great fanfare from federal, provincial and municipal leaders in October 2017, the project has been dogged by questions about data collection and governance, privacy, transparency and the use of public land. As the controversy grew, Waterfront suffered several high-profile departures, and Sidewalk’s privacy adviser resigned.

However, it has continued to enjoy the support of a range of high-profile backers, including former Toronto mayors Barbara Hall and Art Eggleton and urban theorist Richard Florida.

With files from David Skok