With opposition to Google’s Toronto smart neighborhood, larger questions about powerful corporations, tax breaks, and public-private partnerships

Plans in Toronto for Google’s major development have hit multiple stumbling blocks:

As in New York, where fierce opposition to Amazon led the online retail giant to cancel plans to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, a local movement here is growing to send Sidewalk Labs packing. Their concerns: money, privacy, and whether Toronto is handing too much power over civic life to a for-profit American tech giant.

The #BlockSidewalk campaign formed in February after the Toronto Star reported on leaked documents indicating that Sidewalk Labs was considering paying for transit and infrastructure on a larger portion of the waterfront. In return, it would seek a cut of the property taxes, development fees and the increased value of the land resulting from the development — an estimated $6 billion over 30 years…

Separately, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the city, provincial and federal governments to shut down the project over privacy concerns. Michael Bryant, the head of the group, said Trudeau had been “seduced by the honey pot of Google’s sparkling brand and promises of political and economic glory.”…

Micah Lasher, the head of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, said providing more details about the business model for Quayside and plans for data governance earlier would have helped allay many concerns. But he also said the business model remains uncertain.

Any major development or redevelopment project in a major city can run into issues. But, there seem to be at least three larger concerns at play here:

  1. Google and the role of tech companies. The public may be more suspicious of these corporations today compared to ten years ago when all the technology seemed rather magical. Issues of privacy and power matter more today.
  2. Tax breaks may not be the answer they once were in cities and metropolitan areas in order to attract corporations and developers. Residents and local leaders may ask why Google, a very wealthy corporation, needs any tax breaks. And, if the tax breaks are not provided, will Google take its smart city development elsewhere?
  3. This might signal larger issues with public-private partnerships. For at least a ten years or so now, these have been hailed as a way to move forward in many cities: both the local government and the developers chip in to get things done with benefits to both sides. But, do such deals turn over too much control or too many of the benefits to the private side rather than spreading the benefits to the residents and the community?

It will be interesting to see how local political and business leaders handle this: can they afford to let the project die or go elsewhere?

Perhaps the long-term answer for companies like Google is to follow the lead of Disney and Celebration, Florida and create whole communities rather than entering in messy situations in already-existing communities.

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