This story starts with a feel-good "bribe" of sorts -- $200 million in community benefits offered by Google to the city of Mountain View for exclusive access to a hot parcel of property on the waterfront, called North Bayshore. Unfortunately this incentive was sniffed at and ignored by the city council like a fiver passed to the Maitre’d at French Laundry.
The city elected to split the baby and offer Google and LinkedIn each about half the plot to fuel the rapid growth they desire. Google wasn't happy. “To have one building — it’s a significant blow,” David Radcliffe, vice president of real estate and workplace services for Google, told the council (as reported by Nathan Donato-Weinstein).“I’m not sure how I make any of this economically viable with one building.” LinkedIn, on the other hand, was thrilled with the decision: It got about 63 percent of the available allotment -- almost all it asked for.
When we started researching this story we had two key questions: Where is increased housing in this debate? And why are companies betting so much money on a scrap of land that used to be light industrial?
At the wrong time, a commute to the Googleplex can double due to traffic backup; a tent in Mountain View rents for $899 a month; and an entry-level engineer makes headlines for living happily in a moving truck at the edge of the property for months -- with Google's blessing. Everyone -- companies and citizens alike -- wants to be in this small parcel of land in the middle of Silicon Valley. Now that it is the valley, it makes sense. People want to be close to success, close to the action, and employees want to live near work. But this place hasn't historically been home to the most expensive real estate west of Manhattan. It used to just be a normal bedroom suburb. Until Google moved in.
The Googleplex has always been "college campusy," with features designed to amaze and delight employees and prospective employees. Bringing nature into the traditional office park was a very radical idea at the time. But the focus on open space and natural grounds, mirrored by many other Bay Area tech companies, comes at an expense to urban-planning: density.
Explains Sharon Simonson, in a recent article: "For the urbanist, the Apple Inc. campus being built in Silicon Valley is a tragedy: a 176-acre tear in the community fabric delineated with security fencing and destined to last. For the architectural historian, it is that plus a reminder: The stark separations in land use that characterize most of modern America have had — and have — purposes of people separation too."
“[Apple, Google and Facebook] have created these closed enclaves where you have only badged access. It’s not exclusive in race or age or economics, or by intent to have a homogenous population, but it does create these prestigious enclaves where they control the access,” added Bryant Rice, a business and workplace-design consultant.
The campus layout creates a community of workers well-poised to release their creative juices for the corporate benefit. It does so at the expense of engaging with the community beyond the realm of payroll. This structure has a positive impact in terms of appealing to prospective employees, but it does limit companies' efforts to be true citizens of the communities they call home. However, some small efforts are under way to change the status quo.
For example, in Mountain View, Intuit has teamed up with neighbors from LinkedIn and Google to create the Mountain View Transportation Management Association (TMA), which, among other things, runs MVGo, a bus system to connect transportation hubs with tech campuses and downtown. It's open to the public. Intuit's Chris Glennon, head of global real estate and workplace and current chair of TMA, explained the goals of this project: " The objective was to pool resources. All [tech companies] are bringing large groups from [regional transit system,] Caltrain and from all around the Bay Area. Transportation has to be regionalized, collaborative, and everyone has to get everyone to work. MVGo is one piece of the solution."
MVGo is a great step in the direction of opening up the campuses to the larger community and vice-versa, but in terms of urban planning, it is definitely playing catch-up. Which brings us to the latest, hotly contested, battle over North Bayshore.
Mountain View's past city councils have not always supported increased housing. This issue came to a head in the fall of 2014, when a city council that had long put housing on the back burner was voted out of office -- and immediately, in the lame duck session that followed -- approved the North Bayshore Precise Plan, which included office space allotments for 20,000 new jobs and zero housing units.
These are big numbers given that the whole town's population is only 80,000 and Google's Mountain View staff is nearly 20,000. Oddly, two separate sources told me that the council wasn't opposed to new homes in Mountain View -- it was the pets they bring along with them and the damage they can do to wildlife in the undeveloped North Bayshore that were the real problem (I kid you not). The Audubon Society apparently has a strong foothold in the region. But I digress.
Shortly thereafter, the new city council had to vote on how to allocate the office allotments the lame duck council had approved. In the words of one of the new city councilmen, Ken Rosenberg, "We were fixing the plane while it was in the air."
The council agreed to move forward with the scheduled allotment process despite a widely-held agreement that they would need to tackle housing at some point. The fated city council meeting, on Feb. 27, was tense with companies submitting plans for 7 million square feet of proposed building, and only 2.5 million square feet available to dole out in North Bayshore. The bids included very sweet offers including $200 million in community benefits from Google and $40 million from LinkedIn. "Google’s offering was amazing -- a complete redesign going back to natural habitats."
Rosenberg admitted this is an unusual situation with companies bending over backwards to placate the council: "Here they are battling with community benefit offers? What makes Mountain View so desirable and San Jose not? I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out." (TriplePundit reached out to Google and LinkedIn repeatedly to ask them about their interest in North Bayshore, but they did not respond.)
These companies weren't just competing for land. They were competing for "Bonus FAR," or Floor Area Ratio. Floor Area Ratio is an urban planning term for density: The higher the ratio, the denser the property. The FAR calculation allows developers freedom to build within the listed constraints. For example, a one-story building that covers an entire lot has the same FAR as a two-story building on a half-lot or a 10-story building on a tenth of a lot. The companies were competing for the right to build at the maximum allotted density for the district, in areas that were designated for lower density. Sounds great, right? As usual the devil is in the details.
The original North Bayshore Precise Plan's goal was, according to reporter Nathan Donato-Weinstein, to "improve the district’s ecosystem while allowing it to redevelop in a more modern, less office-park-y way and improve traffic (or at least mitigate it). Bonus FAR is a way to get private development to pay for some of this stuff." As we saw above, companies offered benefits in spades -- the ability to build at highest allowed density was a very appealing carrot being dangled. But the maximum density being offered -- again, by a lame-duck city council -- isn't actually very dense.
The maximum density in the most dense section of the North Bay Precise Plan is 2.35. To put that number in perspective, the "High Intensity Office" zones in Mountain View, the densest commercial sections of the city, are zoned for "0.35 FAR; intensities above 0.35 FAR and up to 1.0 FAR may be permitted with measures for highly sustainable development specified within zoning ordinance or precise plan standards."
So, the North Bay Precise Plan allows for considerably greater density than other sections of Mountain View, especially for companies that offer the community benefits required to qualify for FAR of 2.35.
Suddenly, the demand for North Bayshore starts to make a little bit more sense. A new area of development opens up in a highly-desireable area, with room for denser development than has ever been offered before. Just like with residential stock, we see a classic supply-and-demand problem making this area especially valuable simply because the city doesn't have the space to accommodate all the companies that want to be there.
But is it dense enough?
To answer that, we need to look at nearby cities.
The densest parts of San Francisco's commercial district have a FAR of 9. The densest sections of Manhattan have a FAR of 15. While not every city can or should aim to be Manhattan, there's obviously a happy medium possible.
Given the massive demand for housing and commercial space throughout Silicon Valley and all of the San Francisco Bay Area, the easiest way to satisfy it in the medium-term is to increase density through increased FAR allocations. At least that's the point of view of this armchair urban planner.
Ultimately the city council has to balance the needs of corporations, community members and infrastructure upkeep. Challengingly, what's good for one might hurt another given limited resources.
As Ken Rosenberg put it to me when discussing the challenges and opportunities facing his fine city: "It’s not always clear who you are trying to protect. Today we are enjoying economic vitality thanks to the previous council. Housing is today's challenge."
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.