Randall Denley: Doug Ford’s taxpayers-first approach saved Toronto from Sidewalk Labs’ grandiose plan

In the popular imagination, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s favourite negotiating tool is a sledge hammer, but it’s interesting to see the successful and relatively subtle way that he managed to spike a plan by Google to grab much of Toronto’s undeveloped waterfront and turn it into a test lab at significant taxpayer expense.

Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs wanted to develop up to 190 acres of waterfront land. Considering that the company had originally responded to a Waterfront Toronto request to develop only 12 acres, it was a pretty nervy ask.

It’s fair to say that the much more modest proposal approved by Waterfront Toronto this week would not have become reality had Ford not replaced the province’s representatives on the board and taken a strong public stand against Sidewalk Labs’ grandiose plan.

Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns the National Post, is a member of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto.

In August, Ford described the plan to develop 190 acres as “a terrible deal for the taxpayers,” and it was. The Google subsidiary wanted development rights to an awful lot of land for a nominal sum, even though the original 12-acre parcel alone had been appraised at $590 million.

Sidewalk Labs envisioned a community driven by new technology, with artificial intelligence controlling heating and cooling, robots delivering freight underground, high-rise buildings constructed of manufactured wood, its own light rail system and with most streets closed to cars. Sensors would be everywhere, gathering data on what people did, a plan that raised concern from privacy advocates.

Sidewalk Labs’ plan had a tech gloss, but at its heart, it was a development scheme. As Ford summarized it, “They want to take over (more than) 170 (additional) acres and they want us to pay them.”

Ford’s no-nonsense, taxpayers-first approach was a sharp contrast to the stance taken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-premier Kathleen Wynne when the Sidewalk plan was first announced in 2017. The Google subsidiary’s proposal came loaded with some of the PM’s favourite buzzwords. It was clean, green, smart and inclusive. What more could anyone ask?

Trudeau was effusive in his praise for the plan, calling it “a visionary approach” from “a world leader in innovation.” He even said that it was something that he and Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google and then-executive chairman of its parent company Alphabet, “have been talking about collaborating on for a few years now.” That raised a few eyebrows, since Sidewalk had just been chosen over other bids in a competitive process.

The way Ford dealt with the waterfront issue is an interesting indicator of the premier’s new, less-confrontational style

Waterfront Toronto’s board is made up of representatives of all three levels of government, reflecting the complex pattern of land ownership on the waterfront. With Trudeau and Wynne in favour and Toronto Mayor John Tory just happy to see his city land what seemed like a prestigious project, there were no sceptics on hand. Fortunately, the actual approval came after Ford’s election.

Waterfront Toronto chair Steve Diamond credits Ford with turning things around. The new people the premier appointed to the board brought expertise in commercial real estate and technology that helped the board deal with Sidewalk, Diamond says. Most important, Ford gave the chair solid support as he negotiated a tough deal with the tech giant.

For Ford watchers, the way he dealt with the waterfront issue is an interesting indicator of the premier’s new, less-confrontational style. Rather than get in a fight with either the city or the federal government, Ford strengthened the board, said where he stood publicly, and let the board work it out.

For Ford, the diplomatic approach worked much better than earlier involvements in Toronto issues such as his last-minute move to reduce the size of city council by half, or his plan to take over the subway system.

The downtown skyline and CN Tower are seen past cranes in the waterfront area envisioned by Alphabet Inc’s Sidewalk Labs as a new technical hub in the Port Lands district of Toronto.

Chris Helgren/Reuters files

In the end, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto agreed on a 12-acre test site, which is what the agency wanted in the first place. Stronger controls were put on data, placing it in the hands of government, not Google. The company will pay market value for the public land.

While Sidewalk Labs overplayed its hand, it’s still good that a smaller version of the company’s plan is going ahead. When it comes to the use of technology to improve the building and performance of cities, most municipalities are stuck in the last century. They do what they have always done, the way they have always done it. There is real value in innovation that produces better ways to do the mundane tasks of operating a city.

If Google’s subsidiary company can find ways to build better cities, everyone will benefit, but a mega-corporation shouldn’t be test-driving its ideas on the public dime.

Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and former Ontario PC candidate. Learn about his new book Spiked at randalldenley.com. Contact him at [email protected]