A building interior, part of a proposed redevelopment of Toronto's downtown waterfront is seen in an undated artist rendering provided by Alphabet Inc's Sidewalk Labs unit February 15, 2019. Sidewalk Labs/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO ARCHIVES, NO RESALES. - RC13133F4960
© Reuters

The mayor of Toronto has suggested he would support giving more public land to Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs in order to unlock a deal for a controversial “smart city” development.

Sidewalk is currently locked in negotiations with Waterfront Toronto, the public body overseeing the project, over a range of issues including how much land it will develop in the Canadian city and how it will use the data it collects on the people who live and work in its development.

Either side can walk away from the project on October 31 if no agreement is reached.

In June, Sidewalk published plans for the development of more than 150 acres of valuable waterfront land, far more than the original 12-acre site set aside for the smart city. In response, city councillors said Sidewalk had mounted a “land grab” and that the project was a “non-starter”.

In an interview, mayor of Toronto John Tory said there were “fairly clear signals” that Sidewalk would not win all of the waterfront land it had pencilled in.

He said he had told Alphabet executives that if Sidewalk did an “absolutely sterling, five-star” job on a smaller site, it would be in a good position to develop “some other piece of land adjacent”.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to win. But it sure means you’ve got a leg up on anybody else,” he added.

Mr Tory said he would “very much like there to be a deal” and in a sign of possible compromise, he suggested that Google might also take a separate plot of land in the city to build a new headquarters.

Under Sidewalk’s master plan, a 20-acre patch of land called Villiers West would be home to a new 500,000 square foot national headquarters for Google, with up to 2,500 jobs. The search giant currently has a relatively modest office in downtown Toronto and a large engineering campus in the nearby city of Kitchener.

Mr Tory said he would be open to extra lands for the new Google office. “I would not be unfavourably disposed to that on the basis that we get a head office,” he said, noting the potential to bring jobs to the city. He added that he is not personally involved in negotiations currently going on in Toronto and that Google would have to bid for the site.

Earlier this week, a city councillor who sits on Waterfront Toronto’s board told the city’s Globe and Mail newspaper that this land was a key subject in the closed-door negotiations about Sidewalk’s fate. The land in question is city-owned, and the mayor and Toronto city council will ultimately have to approve any plans for its development.

Both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk declined to comment on the negotiations.

Mr Tory also acknowledged that public scepticism over Big Tech had thrown up obstacles to the smart city, where Sidewalk wants to install sensors to monitor everything from traffic patterns to rubbish bins.

Privacy experts and local activists have lambasted Sidewalk’s plans, and a July poll suggests 60 per cent of Toronto residents who are aware of the project do not trust the company when it comes to collecting data in the smart city.

Blayne Haggart, an academic who has closely followed the development, remained sceptical that a deal between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk would provide adequate privacy protections.

“Sidewalk Labs from the very beginning has played fast and loose with the issue of data collection and digital governance,” he said. “From a privacy perspective, Sidewalk Labs has not given us any reasons to trust that they will come up with something in the public interest.”

Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw

Get alerts on Smart cities when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article