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Sidewalk Toronto
The eastern waterfront and the Toronto skyline. (Sidewalk Toronto Photo)

Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google parent Alphabet Inc., announced plans Tuesday to study a bold redevelopment of the Toronto waterfront, bringing smart city technologies and a potential new headquarters for Google Canada to the city.

The initiative, called Sidewalk Toronto, is a joint effort between Sidewalk Labs and the public agency Waterfront Toronto. According to Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Sidewalk Labs will initially invest $50 million (U.S.) in a year-long planning process for Quayside, a 12-acre district on the Lake Ontario waterfront, with plans to grow beyond that.

Just two days from the deadline for cities to submit their request for proposals to Amazon in hopes of landing the Seattle-based tech giant’s second headquarters, the news out of the Canadian city raises questions about just how much tech power it can attract and have room for.

A website dedicated to the project says that Sidewalk Toronto will “combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centered neighborhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.”

At least 3.3 million square feet of residential, office and commercial space — including a new headquarters for Google Canada — could be developed, according to The Globe and Mail, and the district would be a “test bed” for the combination of technology and urbanism.

The plans were announced during a press conference Tuesday featuring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto Mayor John Tory, Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff. Watch below:

Trudeau called Sidewalk Labs “a world leader in urban innovation” and said he was pleased to announce that Google Canada would relocate to the waterfront from its current Toronto location. The company currently employs about 1,000 people across Canada.

“This decision on the part of Google shows commitment to the success of this project,” Trudeau said.

Schmidt said that years ago the thinking at Google was how nice it would be to take the technical things the company was good at and apply them to cities. He said the founders got very excited about this and started joking about all the things they could do, “if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”

Schmidt credited Trudeau with seeing the potential to do more with technology and he said the project was not some “random activity,” but rather an effort to learn further how technology could improve the quality of people’s lives.

Sidewalk Toronto
(Sidewalk Toronto Image)

The Globe and Mail points out that unlike Amazon, which put out a RFP from North American cities seeking to be home to its second headquarters, Sidewalk Labs responded to a request from the government. It responded to a March 2017 call from Waterfront Toronto for a partner to develop the Quayside site, the newspaper reported.

Waterfront Toronto’s aim “is a ‘globally significant community’ that would be climate-positive and support innovation in building and technology, while also addressing social goals including affordable housing.”

In the conversation around Amazon and HQ2, Toronto has been considered a strong possibility to lure the tech giant. A cosmopolitan city with a strong tech workforce, it remains to be seen whether Alphabet’s play here will positively or negatively impact any potential Amazon decision, especially considering how the company enjoys its position in Seattle as top tech dog.

Here’s more on the vision for the smart city from the Sidewalk Toronto website:

The Eastern Waterfront will be a new type of place that combines the best in urban design with the latest in digital technology to address some of the biggest challenges facing cities, including energy use, housing affordability, and transportation.

It will be a place that embraces adaptable buildings and new construction methods to make housing and retail space more affordable. A place where people-centred street designs and a range of transportation options make getting around more affordable, safe, and convenient than the private car. A place that encourages innovation around energy, waste, and other environmental challenges to protect the planet. A place where public spaces welcome families to enjoy the outdoors all day and all night and where community ties are strong. A place that’s enhanced by digital technology and data, without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves.

Knowing that great neighbourhoods aren’t planned from the top down, Sidewalk Toronto will create the conditions for a community to be built and innovations launched by people, companies, startups, academic centres, and local organizations over many years. Sidewalk Toronto aims to make the Eastern Waterfront the global hub of a new industry focused on urban innovation to improve the quality of city life, tapping into Toronto’s already-thriving tech sector and developing innovations that could benefit communities and neighbourhoods elsewhere in the city. To help get started, Alphabet plans to move Google’s Canadian headquarters to the Eastern Waterfront.

To start a public conversation about the future of the Eastern Waterfront, Sidewalk Labs has released the vision laid out in its response to Waterfront Toronto’s RFP. The response represents early thinking about what neighbourhoods of the future could look like ideas we hope will now be shaped by a public conversation that involves all Torontonians.

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