Posted November 2, 2017
The head of the technology company hoping to redevelop part of the east waterfront says he sees housing affordability as the biggest challenge facing Toronto, but anti-poverty activists say they don't buy the idea that a Google sister company will be the one to fix it.
Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company that also controls Google, has struck a deal with Waterfront Toronto to spend the next year planning the development of a parcel of land on the east waterfront, near the foot of Parliament Street.
CEO Dan Doctoroff vowed on Wednesday night that there's no plan to turn the area into a "tech enclave," and re-emphasized the company's commitment to building affordable housing.
Doctoroff delivered few, if any, specifics, but said he's banking on various technologies driving down the cost of housing. He says the project's goal is to have a neighbourhood as diverse as Toronto's population.
"That is just fundamental to our whole approach to this project," he told a crowd of hundreds who came to the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts for the first public meeting on the plan.
ACORN calls for plans to address housing 'crisis'
Before the doors opened, anti-poverty activists with ACORN rallied outside, demanding the project focus on "deep affordability."
"We are in a crisis in the city, a housing crisis," said Alejandra Ruiz Vargas.
She says the group hasn't been consulted on the project so far, and only received an invite to Waterfront Toronto's sold-out event the day before. She also questions how a Silicon Valley spinoff defines affordable housing.
"What is affordable for rich people?" she said.
Inside the venue, Doctoroff highlighted affordable housing developments built in New York City when he was the deputy mayor (an appointed position under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.) He also praised Ruiz Vargas for taking a stand, telling her: "I just want you to know how much we respect that."
However, others also questioned Sidewalk's commitment to affordability, with one noting some of New York's failings and also another pointing out that Toronto already has housing and poverty reduction plans.
"Welcome to Toronto, the city of many strategies and very little money," she told Doctoroff.
Deal worth $50M
Ahead of the meeting, Waterfront Toronto released some more information about how the $50-million US deal with Sidewalk Labs is structured. Throughout the meeting, Waterfront Toronto CEO Will Fleissig tried to reassure the crowd that this remains a planning exercise at this point.
"We have the right to walk away from this if we don't like it," he said.
Sidewalk's vision for the site focuses on improving energy use, housing affordability and transportation. A 189-page document detailing some options includes the use of self-driving shuttles, buildings that are cheap to build (potentially even made of timber) and easy to modify, and a "people-centred" streetscape that's dominated by bike paths and walkways.
Some in the crowd who were more sold on the renderings asked Doctoroff what they'd see first. He responded Sidewalk will be looking for the "biggest quality of life benefit for the buck."
Article by John Rieti for CBC New Toronto