The Trouble with (and Power of) Sidewalk’s Silence on 12
Quick preface to this post, which is about the Sidewalk Toronto process. I am almost (truly) done reading Sidewalk Labs’ plan and continue to understand and see value in discussing the urban planning ideas in it. This post does not erase that sentiment. Those ideas can be considered or used with or without Sidewalk Labs for Toronto’s future planning.
But there is a lie going on right now and not saying so isn’t good. Our governments are letting the lie propagate. As someone that defends our institutions it’s getting increasingly uncomfortable to sit in the silence. When Waterfront Toronto’s chair issued a letter saying that there were some conditions that had to be met for the deal to be viable it wasn’t the first time the board would have communicated those things to Sidewalk Labs. There’s no way that is possible. Which means that Sidewalk Labs went ahead with their giant plan despite, and in full knowledge, that it wasn’t aligned with Waterfront Toronto’s requirements. The public steward. Sit with that for a minute. There is a lot to the action of that. It says more than their words about having respect for government.
Given that Sidewalk has known for some time now that the scope of the deal, and other features, were deemed deal-breaker level problematic, what is taking them so long to respond as to whether they are going to put in a second plan or not? They don’t have to say how they are going to respond, but they certainly should, by now, say if they are going to revise their work or if they aren’t. How much time should the public be spending on these 1,500 pages? Will it be for no reason because a totally different plan is coming soon?
Sidewalk says they are waiting for public feedback. Meanwhile, they’re out there still trying to sell this plan. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve been enabled to do so because there is no deadline for what they have to do next. Sure, they also have to respond to Waterfront Toronto’s design review panel and its digital strategy advisory panel. All of this feedback is of a totally different order of magnitude (smaller) than whether or not they want to deal with 12 acres.
If they want to get a handle on what the public is thinking they could have taken the things they heard at the public meetings they attended and had a pretty good start between that and Diamond’s letter. They’ve been heavily involved with Waterfront’s process. Despite all of this, what do we have? Still not a yes or no answer about if they will resubmit something.
This matters because this process is playing out in the media in simplified narratives. One of which is that this is some kind of big visionary thing (more on that soon) and that’s why it should go ahead as offered. The bigness. This continues to build and exert public pressure on the board, and the governments, to do something that fundamentally contradicts what they’ve already stated are their requirements. How is this good for the public steward’s negotiating position in this situation? It makes no sense.
This matters because Sidewalk Labs will almost certainly seek to downplay Waterfront Toronto’s consultation and say “yeah, but we have 20K people that said nice things about our ideas”. They’ve been building up that quantitative fiction a year and a half. Lost in that number is that those people weren’t confronted with trade-offs because there was no complete picture of the plan, which is what anyone needs to have an informed opinion.
What’s happening now is more boiling frog. It’s quiet, and this makes it seem like this lack of truth in process is fine or acceptable. It’s not. It’s where a lack of transparency into what Waterfront and Sidewalk ever did together or apart isn’t helping. And it certainly creates no great sense of confidence in the institutions we need to be building up. The governments can continue to say that they’ll defer to Waterfront Toronto’s board. But they could also stick up for the public and ask harder questions – in public – about if another version of the plan is coming. I mean, at least if someone is to ever appear to be in charge here. That’s not a question about whether they like the plan or not. That’s a question about process for the public interest.
On August 14th I asked both Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto if and when there would be an addendum to the plan. No answer from either. Crickets. It’s been eleven days. If this next version of the plan (if one will exist) takes much longer there will not be adequate time to do another consultation before October 31st, which means this whole thing gets punted forward again. When is enough enough?
This silence is normalizing a disrespectful negotiation. It’s getting harder than ever to believe the fix isn’t in and that this isn’t just a set-up to figure out exactly how this will work, but never that it might just be a bad deal. This city is incredible. I wish more of the people in leadership positions at all levels of government would signal that self-respect rather than this timid silence that enables and supports only one actor in the process – Sidewalk Labs.