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‘Eyes fully open’: Waterfront Toronto executive says agency keeping tabs on Sidewalk parent

The agency tasked with overseeing development of Toronto’s waterfront has been tracking Alphabet Inc.’s corporate missteps, one of the agency’s senior executives told a public meeting in Toronto Monday night.

Sidewalk Labs, a development company owned by Alphabet, which is also the parent to search-engine giant Google, is proposing a sweeping development project in the city, and Monday night’s meeting was the first chance for residents to offer their input on the four-volume, 1,524-page master innovation and development plan (MIDP) that Sidewalk has put forward.

Some of the residents who attended raised concerns that Alphabet is simply too big and too dominant for Toronto to handle in this kind of deal.

In response, Kristina Verner, vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity at Waterfront Toronto, said that the public agency has been keeping tabs on Alphabet’s corporate conduct.

“Certainly, Sidewalk itself is a relatively new company; that being said, it is a child of Alphabet,” Verner said.

“All of the infractions, all of the violations that have been reported over the last few years, and before then, we actually have a tracker where we’ve been documenting all of that, so we have our eyes fully open as well.”

Verner said that tracking Alphabet’s corporate behaviour is important inorder to have a clear sense of who they’re dealing with “when we discuss what the partnership looks like, and the ethical underpinning of it.”

Google has been under increasing scrutiny due to concerns about privacy protection and monopolistic behaviour.

In March, Google was hit by a 1.5 billion euro fine for anti-competitive behaviour by the European Union, on top of a 4.3 billion euro fine last year and a 2.4 billion euro fine the year before that.

All of the infractions … that have been reported over the last few years, we actually have a tracker where we’ve been documenting all of that, so we have our eyes fully open as well

Kristina Verner, vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, Waterfront Toronto

Google has also been under increased scrutiny about the amount of personal information the company collects, and how that information is used.

Monday’s public meeting marked the beginning of a new phase for Sidewalk Labs’ proposed project.

The company was selected by Waterfront Toronto in 2017 to develop a master plan for largely vacant land on the city’s eastern lakeshore.

In June, following 18 months of public consultation and research, Sidewalk Labs presented an ambitious draft plan for a new neighbourhood that will layer various urban innovations.

Originally Waterfront Toronto worked cooperatively with Sidewalk Labs on research and generating ideas for the new neighbourhood, but last year the federal-provincial-municipal agency repositioned itself as an oversight agency, assessing the MIDP.

The two agencies still have a close contractual relationship, including a provision in their joint Plan Development Agreement which requires both organizations to co-ordinate any public messaging — Waterfront Toronto’s messaging for the public consultation sessions was shared in advance with Sidewalk Labs.

Waterfront Toronto is now conducting two rounds of public consultations, with the first of four public meetings scheduled to gauge sentiment around the Sidewalk Labs proposal, and then another round of public meetings in August or September.

In September, Waterfront Toronto will publish a response to the MIDP pulling together criticisms and concerns based on public commentary and responses from the various levels of government.

Already, Waterfront Toronto chairman Stephen Diamond has raised concerns about the scope of the project, which goes far beyond the 12 acres originally envisioned, to encompass nearly 200 acres of the eastern waterfront.

We’d be surprised to see large swaths of legislative change happening. The time that involves, and the focus that involves, I don’t know if those goals will necessarily be achieved.

Julius Gombos, senior vice-president for project delivery, Waterfront Toronto

Julius Gombos, senior vice-president for project delivery at Waterfront Toronto, told the Financial Post that he was also skeptical of the proposed legislative changes Sidewalk Labs is requesting, including changes to the provincial building code to allow for wood buildings, and the creation of a new public agency that would have sweeping powers to govern the development.

“We’d be surprised to see large swaths of legislative change happening,” Gombos said. “The time that involves, and the focus that involves, I don’t know if those goals will necessarily be achieved.”

After Sidewalk Labs receives the formal response document from Waterfront Toronto, the public agency says it will hold a third phase of public consultations toward the end of 2019 to solicit public feedback on any substantial changes that Sidewalk makes as they turn the draft MIDP into a final document.

Then, Gombos said, Waterfront Toronto will perform an assessment on the final document, and make a recommendation to the board of directors.

The actual evaluation criteria is currently not being released publicly.

“We’re not putting this information out by way of the details of the evaluation at this stage, because it would be giving away the examination papers to the class before we had the test,” Gombos said.

In addition to a final vote from Waterfront Toronto’s board on whether to proceed or walk away from the project, the board of directors for Alphabet will also need to vote on whether to proceed. Both votes are currently expected in late 2019 or early 2020.

Separately, the City of Toronto is planning to spend $800,000 on its own evaluation of the MIDP, with an additional round of public consultation sessions planned for early 2020, with a final report being delivered to council by the end of June next year.

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