Sidewalk Labs’ Sirefman updates Toronto development plans

IMAGE: Sidewalk head of development Josh Sirefman, right, speaks during an interview with Spanier Group president Rob Spanier at the Sept. 17 RealTrends conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. (Steve McLean RENX)

Sidewalk head of development Josh Sirefman, right, speaks during an interview with Spanier Group president Rob Spanier at the Sept. 17 RealTrends conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. (Steve McLean RENX)

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto plan further discussions by the end of October to update a proposed $1.3-billion development for the Quayside and Villers West areas.

Sidewalk head of development Josh Sirefman was interviewed by Spanier Group president Rob Spanier at the Sept. 17 RealTrends conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre about its master innovation and development plan.

Sidewalk’s request for proposal for the sites was chosen in October 2017 following an application process.

Its plan proposes more than five dozen development innovations which would be combined for the first time in a single project.

These include: all structures being constructed using cross-laminated timber as the foundational building material; dynamic streets which can adapt to a neighbourhood’s changing needs; weather mitigation systems; and a thermal grid for heating and cooling.

Creating an “IDEA District”

Sidewalk’s proposal is to transform a small portion of Toronto’s Eastern waterfront into an “Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District,” beginning with the 12-acre Quayside site.

Sidewalk, a sister company to Google, also proposes to be the real estate developer, along with local partners, for the nearby Villiers West site. It would be anchored by a new Google Canadian headquarters and a new Urban Innovation Institute.

A public administrator, in conjunction with the municipal, provincial and federal governments, would determine whether to extend the IDEA District beyond Quayside and Villiers West.

In aggregate, Sidewalk and its partners propose to provide up to $1.3 billion in funding and financing, which they say would spark an additional $38 billion in investment, primarily by third parties.

Sidewalk says its master plan, by its 2040 completion, would create 44,000 direct jobs (and 93,000 total jobs) and generate $4.3 billion in annual tax revenue and $14.2 billion in annual gross domestic product. It would provide housing for 53,000, with 40 per cent of units going for below-market rates.

“We’re trying to be at the forefront of city-building,” said Sirefman. He noted Sidewalk’s proposal is designed to achieve job creation and economic development, affordability, sustainability and an opportunity to try different models and show how they work.

“It’s a question of how much can you take advantage of tools that exist that are new and powerful and that create capabilities that we’ve never had before.”

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners is a new entity formed by Sidewalk, its Alphabet parent company and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan to invest in or acquire assets or companies focused on next-generation infrastructure.

Sirefman said the goal is to “lead the way on how advanced infrastructure systems and new methodologies can be brought to market and effectively made market-standard.”

Sirefman added “a couple of things that Sidewalk did” will be rolled into this new company, which he said is now fully operational.

Data collection and privacy

Sidewalk has drawn criticism for the types and amount of data it would collect as part of its plan. The key concerns are privacy issues because sensors will be used to collect many different types of information about residents, workers and visitors.

“Data is just a means to an end,” said Sirefman. “Our business is not about capturing and selling data.”

Sidewalk has proposed the idea of a civic data trust, working with Waterfront Toronto and governments to decide who manages the collected data. That entity would have to go through an approval process to capture and utilize the information.

Sirefman believes Sidewalk’s “world-leading” model “will emerge as the most transparent and the most secure and the most governed approach to the capture of data.”

Sirefman conceded what Sidewalk is attempting to do in Toronto is difficult and complicated, but said it presents great opportunities which could have an “enormous impact.”

He believes the approaches, ideas and tools initiated by the project will become the norm in thinking about city-building.


Steve is a veteran writer, reporter, editor and communications specialist whose work has appeared in a wide variety of print and online outlets. He’s the author of the book Hot…

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Steve is a veteran writer, reporter, editor and communications specialist whose work has appeared in a wide variety of print and online outlets. He’s the author of the book Hot…

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