Chris Selley: Sidewalk's 'smart city' could've succeeded somewhere normal. But this is Toronto

By Chris Selley, Ottawa Citizen, May 7, 2020

Twelve acres. Roughly six Canadian football fields. That’s how much of Toronto’s prime waterfront real estate Sidewalk Labs — Alphabet Inc.’s (i.e., Google’s) urban-innovation arm — was at least theoretically planning to develop before walking away on Thursday, citing economic uncertainties born of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quayside, as it’s called, is a tiny chunk of a sprawling, 750-acre parcel of post-industrial moonscape surrounding the mouth of the Don River. Waterfront Toronto — an arm’s-length agency formed by the municipal, provincial and federal government — wants to turn Quayside into an innovative mixed-use neighbourhood and, in 2017, Sidewalk won a (fairly perfunctory) contest to make it happen. (Andrew MacLeod, president and CEO of Postmedia, parent company of the National Post, joined Waterfront Toronto’s board in 2019.)

Sidewalk clearly had its eyes on developing more than that tiny chunk. But if its near-utopian vision had been borne out, that would have been no bad thing. This neighbourhood would privilege active transportation, with wide sidewalks and heated bike lanes and adaptive traffic signals that give slower pedestrians more time, and no street parking. There would be demand-based pricing for road usage. An automated underground freight-delivery system would cut down on the need for delivery trucks. “Modular pavement” would allow quick, non-labour-intensive repairs, reconfigurations and access to utilities.

It would be a mixed-income and family-friendly community: 20 per cent low-income and 20 per cent middle-income, with 40 per cent of units two-bedrooms or larger. It would be fantastically energy-efficient. It would discourage waste production using “pay-as-you-throw chutes” leading to pneumatic tubes that would rocket your trash, recycling and organic waste to the proper facilities.

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