Last week, I read a surprising article about how Sidewalk Labs offered to invest billions to build transit and essentially lay the groundwork for future development in the Port Lands area in Toronto. All they wanted in exchange was...a cut of property taxes and development fees.
As soon as the Ontario government caught wind of the idea, they squashed it. I particularly like what councillor of Ward 13, Kristyn Wong-Tam, tweeted: “A tech giant never having built transit + city infrastructure anywhere, or even pitched a dime for the $1.25B for Port Lands flood protection, has the audacity to stake claim for future land value, property taxes + development charges on land they don’t own.”
According to the Toronto Star article I read, which references a staff report from March 2018, only 11% of the Port Lands area is privately owned, while another 11% is owned by the province, and the remaining 78% is owned by the City.
So, here’s the thing - my feelings coincide with Wong-Tam’s, but I’m not opposed to getting creative with public-private partnerships. Obviously, taking a chunk of our property taxes and development fees revenue makes little sense, especially when you have zero experience building transit or city infrastructure and don’t even own the land. When it comes to city development, the municipality has to be at the top of the food chain (sometimes with the province and/or federal government hovering above).
If the city ever makes a deal like this and allows a large, foreign, private company to plan and fund municipally-owned infrastructure just because they have deep pockets, then who knows what comes next. The City has to be the one with the plan and projects should be funded through the numerous taxes collected (from all levels of government). And if it makes sense, a public-private partnership can be formed, but the City should never be in a position that they owe a private company for years to come, sacrificing who knows how much in tax revenue.
The current partnership between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs is already on thin ice with many Torontonians, some of which fear for the security of their personal data with the smart, tech-forward Quayside plan in the works. I’m starting to doubt whether the project will even move forward.
Honestly, I do like the idea that a company like Sidewalk Labs can make a portion of Toronto’s waterfront a testing bed for the most innovative technology in the world. Because that’s what they do. It’s my understanding that Sidewalk Labs would be putting up a bunch of money to test its tech, Torontonians would benefit from it, and then Sidewalk Labs would monetize the systems and tech they develop by selling it to other municipalities and governments.
Since Sidewalk Labs shares the same parent company as Google, people are concerned about their data being collected and monetized, likely for advertising purposes. I find it hard to believe that this valuable data would be used solely for municipal reference for future development. That said, I use my phone and computer every day, and targeted ads are getting better and better. I feel like all my personal data is already being tracked, analyzed, and filed away, so I’m ready for the smart city that’s designed for me, but also works for everyone else.
I also feel like I have to say this again - I would never be okay with a private company with zero experience in infrastructure development getting a cut of our property taxes and development fees revenue on land they don’t even own. I’ll make that clear.
But, what if a big developer like Daniels, Minto or Tridel received development charge rebates for building more family-sized condo units? Then the City also offered incentives and tax rebates to families with children for buying new construction condos, like they’re doing in Montreal? I’d like to see a public-private partnership like this in Toronto.