April 9, 2020
Dear Waterfront Toronto Staff and Board:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the evolving plans for the approximately 12 acres of publicly owned waterfront land known as the Quayside parcel.
We recognize you have invited community members to submit comments reflecting on the second round of public consultations held on 2/29/2020, shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak in Ontario. We do have comments reflecting on the consultation, outlined briefly below.
Our submission, however, focuses on the consequences of the ongoing pandemic, and information we think both the public and the Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors need in order to (re-) evaluate the Quayside proposal in light of drastically altered circumstances and frankly, public priorities. Proceeding on a “business as usual” basis would, we believe, represent a material governance failure.
It needs to be said that none of the issues outlined below arise anew in light of the pandemic. Instead, the pandemic has caused us - collectively - to hit the pause button on a great many initiatives and projects in an acknowledgement of the profoundly changed, and changing, social and economic realities precipitated by the global health crisis. COVID-19 highlights the problems that this group has been pointing out from the very beginning, which are now of heightened interest to the public.
a) Impact of potential delays/realignments for regulatory changes, funding:
Several of the 144 proposals shortlisted by Waterfront Toronto require regulatory change and/or government funding. The focus and resources of all levels of government are now appropriately focused on the pandemic. Both the Board and the public need to know how the pandemic could affect the timing and likelihood of regulatory change and public funding for these proposals.
- Since government priorities around the allocation of public funds has changed dramatically in light of CIVID-19, please identify the innovations that cannot move forward without government subsidies.
- How long do you anticipate the consideration of proposed regulatory changes to be delayed in light of the pandemic? What is the likely impact of the delay? At what point might the innovation in question become outdated?
- For which proposed innovations is government funding truly necessary, and in which case is it merely hoped for? Which proposals could still move forward if government funding dries up/is delayed, or funding priorities shift?
b) Economic development:
Before the pandemic, Toronto had one of North America’s booming tech sectors absent any stimulation by a Google test-bed neighbourhood. During the pandemic, however, tech giants like Google, Amazon and Netflix appear to be consolidating their market power. Local small businesses and start-ups - including many in the tech sector - are struggling to survive.
We ask that any assessment of the economic impact of the Quayside development be repeated to reflect the rapidly changing economic environment - including changes in the resources and market power of tech giants.
We strongly recommend Waterfront Toronto re-assess whether the public assets and resources under its stewardship should, going forward, be used in ways that prioritize the needs of local small businesses and start-ups rather than, deliberately or inadvertently, to further resource and consolidate the market power of a near-monopoly. Nor should Waterfront Toronto - or any level of government - re-direct public resources to Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs.
c) Changed circumstances and priorities:
The pandemic threatens not just the health, but also the housing security and livelihoods of Torontonians. It has laid bare how decades of austerity and privatization have compromised the ability of all levels of government to protect residents’ health and well-being.
We ask that you, in consultation with residents, re-visit the $590+ million opportunity that Quayside represents, to ensure these resources can best be deployed to support residents’ most urgent needs - including, but not limited to, affordable housing. It is more important than ever to ensure that Quayside does not become an instrument to divert funding and decision-making power from our public sector to private, for profit interests, and we ask that you re-visit Quayside proposals that (deliberately or inadvertently) do so. As a public corporation, no effort should be undertaken that inadvertently compromises the ability of the public sector to care for residents during and post-pandemic.
Reflections on the public consultation held on 2/29/2020
- The consultations did not, as originally envisioned, allow for a clear understanding and discussion of the trade-offs involved in the proposal for Quayside. It was concerning that staff and board members could not commit to such a discussion happening before the board vote.
- Once again, Waterfront Toronto side-stepped important and basic questions about consent and partnership, focusing most of the small groups on superficial discussions regarding which proposals were preferable. We recognize and thank Swerhun Inc for encouraging participants to bring up issues even if they did not respond to the questions prepared by Waterfront Toronto.
- The second round of consultations occurred on one day and one location, as opposed to the first round of consultations, which occurred over 2-3 weeks across the city. This format limited the range if not the number of participants, many of whom appeared to be present as a result of targeted turnout by Sidewalk Labs and its supporters. Under the circumstances, the use of polling-type questions is misleading at best.
- Residents were invited to comment on over one hundred proposals, a subset of which concerned complex tech, lightly-documented. The comments of Waterfront Toronto’s
Digital Strategy Advisory panel were, in the opinion of this group, very helpful in aiding non-experts to understand what issues were at stake in different digital proposals. However, this report was released to the public only a short time before the consultation. We believe consultations over new digital technologies have to equip members of the public with meaningful and unbiased information about the potential benefits and potential risks of the solution, along with alternative (including low-tech) paths to solving the same problems.
- We are concerned Waterfront Toronto’s Intelligent Community Guidelines won’t be complete at the time the Board is asked to vote on the Quayside proposal.
- We are concerned that neither DSAP nor the Board will be provided with material details regarding the proposed digital solutions (including important details about their architecture) before the Board is asked to vote on the Quayside proposal.
- We are concerned that Waterfront Toronto staff show no signs of evaluating the track record of the Alphabet group of companies as serious allegations concerning violations of digital rights and privacy continue to mount.
#BlockSidewalk was launched in late February of this year by a group of about thirty Torontonians who care deeply about the city and its future. We share is a belief that democracy is not for sale and that Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs is the wrong partner for Waterfront Toronto. The campaign now has over 1,500 supporters and is growing rapidly. We are calling for a re-set of the Quayside planning process so that future development is controlled by public bodies, in the public interest.