Opinion

Letter from the editor: The growing tension in the Sidewalk Labs Quayside project

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For weeks, people have been telling me about brewing tensions between two of the most powerful people involved in Toronto’s potential smart-city development.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff and Waterfront Toronto board chair Stephen Diamond’s relationship got off to a rocky start back in April, when Doctoroff disclosed elements of the company’s plans to the media before sharing the final proposal with Waterfront Toronto, which gets to decide whether the project goes ahead. Diamond told Doctoroff to knock it off, and he did—at least for a little while.

Now, strains between the two organizations have resurfaced. Multiple sources familiar with the negotiations between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto told The Logic that the two sides are not on the same page about several key aspects of what Sidewalk Labs will present to the public on Monday.

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Doctoroff has continued to push for more than the 12 acres offered in the agency’s initial Request for Proposals (RFP). And, the master proposal to be released on Monday will outline an area beyond the scope laid out in the Plan Development Agreement (PDA) last July, sources said.

There was a time when the two organizations worked in lockstep on the goals of the project. Then, after the departure of Waterfront CEO Will Fleissig, several high-profile resignations and the ensuing global media firestorm, Diamond was brought in to bring stability and accountability to the project. The highly respected developer was appointed by all three levels of government in March.

Multiple sources told The Logic that Waterfront Toronto’s board members have become increasingly frustrated by Doctoroff’s efforts to circumvent them. The Sidewalk Labs CEO directly approached government officials, including Toronto Mayor John Tory, to complain about Diamond, the sources said.

The master proposal was also shared with community stakeholders before it was officially submitted to Waterfront Toronto. And, in an attempt to pressure the agency, Sidewalk Labs asked prominent CEOs to sign a letter of support for the project.

A spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs did not directly respond to whether Doctoroff had complained to Tory, or whether it had sent a letter to CEOs requesting their signatures, but provided a statement praising Diamond.

“In his time as chair, Steve Diamond has demonstrated that he is thoughtful, fair-minded, and committed to protecting the public interest. This kind of leadership is critical if this project is to succeed, and we are fortunate to be working with him. That was our belief when Mr. Diamond was appointed, and it has only grown stronger in the months since,” said Keerthana Rang, associate director of communications for Sidewalk Labs.

Waterfront Toronto’s board has rallied behind Diamond. One source said board members still hope for a positive outcome, but that Sidewalk Labs’ continued public-relations push outside of the negotiating table has made things difficult.

The project on Toronto’s Quayside lands requires the approval of that board to move forward. A vote is expected several months after public consultations, slated to begin as early as mid-July.

Monday’s release will kick off a public-relations blitz from Sidewalk Labs. But don’t let the glossy images and innovative designs distract from the growing division between Sidewalk Labs and the agency that represents all three levels of government in this project.

It comes down to the fine print of the agreement. Despite promising for over a year to release a clear plan to the public, sources tell me the document coming Monday doesn’t currently have an executive summary, and is riddled with ambiguous language.

As one source told me, “When you print something that’s 1,500 pages without an executive summary, you have to wonder why.”