Dear Toronto Star Editorial Board
(Andrew Phillips, Jordan Himelfarb, Dianne Rinehart, and Scott Colby).
This is a quick post in response to the Toronto Star Editorial Board’s recent Sidewalk Toronto oped. The Star piece is titled: We Shouldn’t Settle for More of the Same on Toronto’s Waterfront.
The Star’s oped is irresponsible. The Toronto Star can like the Sidewalk deal, as can anyone else, that’s not the problem. We’re at the point in this deal where we know that next to no-one is reading the 1,500 page plan. This means the deal is playing out more than ever in the headlines, rather than being grounded in fact, because most people are either confused or overwhelmed. What this creates, in a public conversation, is a whole lot of silencing. In this context, the power that the Toronto Star’s editorial board wields is larger than ever. It’s a trusted voice.
So here’s the core problem with their piece, it’s these three paragraphs:
“It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the Waterfront Toronto board, packed with development insiders as it is thanks to Ford’s recent appointments, seems more determined to find ways to scuttle the deal than give it careful consideration.
And, certainly, Sidewalk Labs has had missteps along the way, making it easier to poke holes than to negotiate a way forward.
Waterfront Toronto and its current board is a long way off the heady days when three levels of government banded together to realize what was supposed to be this country’s most ambitious urban renewal project. And they’re being pressured from the right and the left to kill the project for very different but equally shortsighted reasons. Thankfully, there still are some civic and business leaders urging big thinking.”
The narrative put forward in this piece, that the Waterfront Toronto board isn’t giving the plan careful consideration, is irresponsible and counterfactual.
The Waterfront Toronto board has been negotiating and working to make this project happen since it began. That was, funnily enough, always the problem. That “no” was never even on the table. This deal was structured as a partnership. Can you imagine such a sure thing set-up ending up where it is now? Might that mean something with the deal is pretty wrong?
Fast-forward to today. The organization’s mandate for urban redevelopment, and its civic instincts, are as true as ever – the people there are deal-makers. If there is a good deal for the City in this mix, based on how they would define a good deal, they will make it. They’d be excited to. The thrill of the chase, the taming the big vendor, the “we’ve got this” attitude. Anyone can see this was a match made to work. And this plan does not totally cut out other developers or businesses, it’s not how it’s set up. It does, however, create a middleman called Sidewalk Labs, and that may be something others aren’t so excited about. Which makes a lot of sense. Why would the rest of the city want to deal with Sidewalk Labs rather than Waterfront Toronto directly? But I digress.
I say this taking myself entirely out of the question. I don’t want a deal, haven’t for a long time, but I’m one person. I think the City should have a bar for who we do business with and how. As far as my feelings go on this deal, we’re at the point now where our institutions are either going to work or they’re not and they may work and come up with something I don’t like. That’s democracy. If everyone wants the ideas in the plan they can happen with or without Sidewalk Labs. I’m showing up to the process to participate in the ideas, to try and have a voice in this discussion, as are many others, despite the numerous barriers that exist to doing so with confidence.
At a recent Waterfront Toronto public meeting, I took part in a small table discussion about the third volume of the plan. Turned out that one of the people at my table was one of the newer provincial appointees to the board. They engaged with the table thoroughly for our session, asking hard questions, sharing some of their thoughts about the issues and opportunities. It was a good conversation, it had depth. Board members don’t have to do this kind of thing for theatre. No one knows about it. It’s not reported on. They could have shown up and waved and left.
And while we’re here…
This is not only a real estate deal. Making it only about waterfront real estate development is factually incorrect. Opeds are about opinions, but they also demand grounding in fact. In the immediate term, the project is very much a real estate transaction, always has been – it’s a major part of the deal, yes. But it’s not the full proposal, not by a long shot. The piece fundamentally tells the story of the project incorrectly.
The political pitch for Sidewalk Labs was and is economic development. This framing demands an entirely different analysis than what is presented in the oped. Further, within Sidewalk’s plans, there are several implications for public governance, which are also absent from direct mention in the oped. I’m not talking about privacy. The plan seeks to create a digital layer on top of public assets and infrastructure, which opens up another set of governance issues. Suffice it to say, this oped simplifies the story to a degree that it plays into a narrow urban planning conversation. It’s not the full story. It’s problematic to make an effort to round it off this way. It makes me wonder if the editorial board has read the plan or not. And why is the Star repeating Dan Doctoroff’s language about a derelict waterfront? Unclear. And why call public concern about Alphabet and the public interest “fear” – it’s not fear, it’s fact. It’s history.
The Toronto Star can make all the arguments in the world about scale, condos, affordability, urban planning, what they liked about the plan, etc. to try and convince people those things are a good idea, absolutely, one hundred percent, for sure. But throwing the three levels of government under the bus in terms of their process, despite all of them saying they are deferring to the board (Ford included)? Why suggest – contrary to the history of this deal – that they aren’t doing their all to make it work? I don’t get it. And I don’t think it’s responsible when the governments are doing what they’re doing and trying to signal to the public that their input matters. Power demands responsibility. I don’t see it being exercised in this oped.