Alphabet secures conditional approval to build a 'smart city' in Toronto

Key Points
  • Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs unit has secured conditional approval to move forward with building a smart city in Toronto.
  • This means the project will go through a formal evaluation and further public consultation before a final vote on March 31, 2020.
  • The project has been a point of controversy over data privacy concerns and whether the initiative will benefit local businesses.
Thomas Dagg | National Geographic

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs unit has secured conditional approval to move forward in the process to build a smart-city in Toronto, the city's waterfront development board said on Thursday.

The directors of Waterfront Toronto met on Thursday to consider "alignment on critical issues" between Waterfront and Sidewalk Labs on the company's proposal to build a futuristic urban development project along Toronto's water front.

The approval means the project will go through a formal evaluation and further public consultation before a final vote on March 31, 2020 by Waterfront Toronto, a corporation funded by the city, provincial and federal governments.

"We are encouraged by today's decision by the Waterfront Toronto board and are pleased to have reached alignment on critical issues with Waterfront Toronto," Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff wrote in a statement. "We want to be a partner with Waterfront Toronto and governments to build an innovative and inclusive neighborhood."

Waterfront Toronto has a mandate to approve projects, although some aspects — including sales of government land — will still have to be approved by the relevant level of government. While the Waterfront Toronto board vote is not the final hurdle Alphabet faces in the approval process, a no vote from the board may have ended the project.

"After two years in Toronto and engaging and planning with over 21,000 Toronto residents, we are looking forward to the next round of public consultations, entering the evaluation process, and continuing to develop a plan to build the most innovative neighbourhood in the world," Doctoroff said. "We are working to demonstrate an inclusive neighborhood here in Toronto where we can shorten commute times, make housing more affordable, create new jobs, and set a new standard for a healthier planet."

In June, Sidewalk Labs submitted its 1,524-page proposal for the project on Toronto's eastern waterfront. The proposal showed that the Google sister company was reigning back some of its involvement, amid local pushback. The company said it aimed to spend a total of $3.9 billion in the areas that will make up the "smart" district.

"The proposal represents our best thinking to date on the path to creating the most innovative place in the world, right here in Toronto," Sidewalk Labs said in a blog post Thursday. "Our proposal was bold, but it was also a draft— subject to additional public consultations, further refinement and government approvals."

The project has faced hurdles, as critics said Sidewalk Labs' proposals for data usage and storage took too much from individuals, and did not create enough opportunities for Canadian businesses. Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto had until Thursday to resolve "threshold issues," as Waterfront termed them, including data usage and scope, that would satisfy both parties and allowed the project to move forward toward final approval.

"Let me be clear: this is not a done deal. There is still much work to do before a final decision," wrote Chair of the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors Stephen Diamond in a letter to the public. "While a final Board decision whether or not to proceed has yet to be made, we are pleased that we are now able to move to the evaluation stage on a project that has the potential to create new jobs and economic development opportunities, a create carbon-neutral neighbourhood, and more affordable housing units"

Diamond highlighted a number of issues on which the board and Sidewalk Labs were able to agree, including a reduction in the amount of land involved in the deal and that all personal data will be stored in Canada. Diamond also emphasized a number of topics on which there has been discussion such as land valuation and a potential revenue share.

"Sidewalk Labs listened to our concerns, and those of the public, and has confirmed that it will make significant changes to its proposal..."

Reuters contributed to this report.

Google's smart cities
Google's smart cities