Sidewalks Labs has announced that it will no longer pursue its “Sidewalk Toronto” plans for a high-tech, smart neighbourhood in Toronto, citing the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as the main factor behind the decision.
The company is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc – Google’s parent company – and was selected in 2017 by Waterfront Toronto to put forward detailed proposals for a neighbourhood of the future on Toronto’s waterfront. A year later it revealed ambitious draft plans for the new neighbourhood close to Toronto’s portlands.
Plans continued to progress and Sidewalk Labs increased its presence in the city, opening a 30-person office close to the prosed site of the neighbourhood. However, the work came to a grinding halt yesterday when the company announced that it would “no longer pursue the Quayside project.”
In a statement published yesterday, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff explained the decision: “For the last two-and-a-half years, we have been passionate about making Quayside happen… But 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 together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.”
Mr. Doctoroff continued: “And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project, and let Waterfront Toronto know yesterday.”
While the Toronto project has been cancelled, Sidewalk Labs will be exploring other opportunities for smart cities in the future, suggesting that the current pandemic emphasizes the need for the kind of neighbourhood they imagine.
According to Mr. Doctoroff, “…the current health emergency makes us feel even more strongly about the importance of reimagining cities for the future. I believe that the ideas we have developed over the last two-and-a-half years will represent a meaningful contribution to the work of tackling big urban problems, particularly in the areas of affordability and sustainability. This is a vital societal endeavor, and Sidewalk Labs will continue our work to contribute to it.
The initial proposal by Sidewalk Labs included a bold vision for a community with streets designed for pedestrians and cyclists first. The plan included 12 buildings of various sizes made from Canadian timber and with space for 5000 residents. 40% of the units were to be priced below market value and half of that total would have been specified as affordable housing.
The headline features of the neighbourhood related to the smart technology involved to make life easier and help reduce GHG emissions by up to 85%. This included automated trash collection, streets designed for self-driving cars and a number of other automated features.
However, the smart technology raised concerns for some privacy campaigners about who would own the data from the neighbourhood and how it would be managed. Sidewalk Labs responded to concerns by creating a Data Trust but there were still concerns raised, including by Ontario’s privacy commissioner.
In response to the announcement by Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto released a statement thanking the company for their efforts: “While this is not the outcome we had hoped for, Waterfront Toronto offers thanks and appreciation to Sidewalk Labs for its vision, effort, and the many commitments that both the company and its employees have made to the future of Toronto.”
Addressing potential speculation about the future of the waterfront site, the statement added: “Today there is global financial uncertainty, but Waterfront Toronto has confidence in the city’s economic future, and will take the long view when making real estate and development decisions on Toronto’s Waterfront. Quayside remains an excellent opportunity to explore innovative solutions for affordable housing, improved mobility, climate change, and several other pressing urban challenges that Toronto must address in order to continue to grow and succeed.”