What Alphabet Did Right in Toronto That Amazon Got Wrong in New York

November 1, 2019, 10:48 AM UTC

In 2017, two of the world’s biggest tech titans pitched ambitious urban developments in two of North America’s biggest cities. Today, only one of them is still in the running.

Alphabet Inc.’s urban innovation unit Sidewalk Labs LLC conceded to key demands from public stakeholders to move forward with plans to build a smart city on Toronto’s waterfront. Contrast that with Amazon.com Inc., which withdrew its plans for a second headquarters in New York after a fierce backlash from some residents and politicians.

“It is a little different than say, what you would’ve seen with Amazon,” Dan Doctoroff, chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs, said in an interview in Toronto Thursday. “You’ve got to listen to people, you’ve got to show real respect and empathy for what the pressures are on public-sector actors. Maybe sometimes we didn’t show it but we’ve always felt it.”

Smaller Project

Doctoroff is the former CEO of Bloomberg LP and deputy mayor of New York City under Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg’s founder.

Sidewalk’s concessions included partnering with other developers on a project that envisions everything from heated sidewalks to movable curbs all connected by sensors that can generate data to make it run efficiently. It also agreed to rein in the development’s scope. Instead of the 190-acre project it pitched in June, Sidewalk will only have the mandate to develop the 12-acre Quayside site it originally proposed, with an opportunity to expand if the project is a success.

“Toronto has figured out the middle ground,” said Alex Ryan, a vice president at MaRS, a tech hub in the city, which was involved in the consultations. “Rather than be bullied or pushed over, and rather than run them out of town like with Amazon HQ2, Toronto is coming at this as equals.”

Doctoroff said Sidewalk still has work to do to satisfy itself it can meet its innovation ambitions and that financial returns can be achieved on Quayside only. “We’ll do that together with Waterfront Toronto,” he said. “But our hypothesis is that we should be able to.”

Waterfront Toronto, the public entity in charge of the development, will start public consultations to further evaluate Sidewalk’s proposal and will decide next year whether to move ahead.

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