Smart City megaprojects get a lot of hype. So why do so many turn out to be expensive disappointments?


By John Lorinc Atkinson Fellow Wed., Jan. 13, 2021

A languishing brownfield site. A developer’s visions of castles in the sky. Corporate partnerships to build cutting-edge smart city infrastructure. And the promise of luring tech giants prepared to invest billions.

The hype could have easily described Sidewalk Labs’ now aborted Toronto venture, but this story actually played out near Boston, on a decommissioned airbase in Weymouth, about half an hour southwest of a city known for its Ivy League colleges and the booming tech industry spawned by MIT.

When LStar, a North Carolina developer, began building Union Point in the mid-2010s on that base, it looked a lot like many generic master-planned edge city projects. But a partnership LStar established with General Electric in 2017 promised much more: not just a fully wired community, but intelligent lighting (LED street lamps that can be remotely monitored), autonomous vehicles, green energy “micro-grids” and streets equipped with sensors that would gauge traffic, locate parking spots and even alert police if gunshots were detected.

As the New York Times noted: “General Electric will use Union Point as a laboratory for testing new products and as a showroom for working systems.” It could have been describing Sidewalk.

LStar and Weymouth officials were so bullish they believed Union Point was a shoo-in to be chosen as Amazon’s second headquarters, a strange urban beauty contest that drew bids from cities across North America, including Toronto. As Kyle Corkum, LStar’s managing partner, told the Boston Business Journal, “I feel sorry for the rest of the competition in the United States, because, honest to God, I have a hard time imagining another site that can score the way we’re going to score.”

Amazon, of course, ended up choosing New York (which promptly changed its mind), and the rest of LStar’s Union Point vision soon collapsed in a cloud of recriminations, lawsuits and complaints from residents who couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee in their cutting edge techno-burb. “The Smart City That Wasn’t” is the cutting verdict handed down by the Journal of American Institute of Architects.

In a bid to contain the damage, Weymouth authorities took desperate measures to push out LStar, even blocking sewer hookups. In January of this year, Toronto developer Brookfield was chosen to take over the languishing project and develop it in a more conventional way.

A McGill University study published in 2019 in the journal Cities concluded, “Union Point represents an example of how smart city rhetoric seduced local officials who were dazzled by the possibility of having an instantly lucrative, tech-focused ‘smart’ city.” What they missed, the authors noted, was the fact that so many of these smart city megaprojects had turned into expensive disappointments.


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