Some days it feels like Google is taking over the world. For the residents of Mountain View, California, that feeling is personal. Two weeks ago, Google signed a deal for its very own airport just east of the Googleplex, complete with a blimp hangar large enough to house the Hindenburg. But building a better blimp probably isn't the reason that Google is leasing the historic Moffett Federal Airfield from the US government. At the same time the search giant is building robots and self-driving cars, Google is on a hometown real-estate binge — and Moffett Field could be the missing piece Google needs to reshape the city in its own image.
In 1999 Google moved into its first Mountain View office at 2400 Bayshore Parkway, with fewer than 50 employees to its name. Fifteen years later, it's the city's biggest employer. Though Microsoft, Symantec, Intuit, and LinkedIn each have a major presence in Mountain View, all are dwarfed by Google: in 2013, Google employed 9.7 percent of the city's entire workforce and owned 10.7 percent of all taxable property. In other words, Google represented one-tenth of Mountain View as of last year.
And it’s only getting bigger.
Not a cash cow
That growth might not be so bad if Google had more to offer than higher property values. City council member Mike Kasperzak is generally proud to call Google a neighbor, but he points out that the company’s presence isn’t the economic windfall you might think. There's no sales tax on Google's search or ad businesses, and no sales tax on the free meals that Google dishes out to employees. "I don’t want them to leave, but they aren’t the cash cow that everyone thinks they are," says Kasperzak.
Meanwhile Google is creating a tremendous amount of traffic. Google now owns or leases practically every office building north of Highway 101, an area known as North Bayshore. The importance of the islandlike geography can't be overstated: Highway 101 is the primary thoroughfare that connects Mountain View to the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, and it completely separates the North Bayshore employees from their houses and apartments. By design there’s little to no housing in North Bayshore, and all traffic in or out of Google has to go across or through Highway 101. As Google grows that traffic is becoming unbearable. "It's a parking lot," says city council member Jac Siegel. "I live on a side street, and there are times I can’t even get out of my driveway to get onto the side street; that's how bad it's gotten."
Google's central hub is cut off from the world
Yet Google has shown no signs of slowing its growth. As of June 2013 Google employed 11,332 workers in Mountain View, but it told the city council that it hopes to add 3.7 million square feet of new development under the city's latest zoning plan — enough to eventually double its workers to 24,000 by a conservative estimate. And that’s without counting any other purchases or leases Google might make in the area. To Google's credit, only 52 percent of its employees drove alone to work in 2012 — one-third opted for company buses — but even 52 percent of 24,000 is daunting when some of Mountain View's roads are already overflowing.
Google declined interview requests for this story, but provided the following statement: "Google and more than 3,000 Google employees call Mountain View home, and to date we’ve added no new development. No matter what happens in the future, we’re committed to being good neighbors for the community and the natural environment. In fact, our shuttle program takes 5,000 cars off the road each day, and thousands more Google employees ride bikes to work."
In 2007, after Google's first shopping spree resulted in the company snapping up roughly one-quarter of local office space, some residents were already becoming concerned. "I worry about us becoming a one-company town," a local told the Silicon Valley Business Journal that year, even as a city council member praised Google for revitalizing the area. In 2009 a Google transportation planner eerily predicted the gridlock that Mountain View might face in five to ten years if growth continued unchecked.
Those worries didn't fall on deaf ears. According to Daniel DeBolt, a journalist who's been covering the story for nearly a decade, the Mountain View City Council has repeatedly challenged Google's ambitions. They've opposed Google proposals to build housing, to erect a hotel, and more recently to start any new construction whatsoever in the North Bayshore area. Transportation is one of the council’s concerns, but the environment also ranks high on the agenda: some are worried about impact to the native burrowing owl and other species in North Bayshore’s wildlife refuge.
"Having our employees right next to each other... is critical to our success."
Presently, the city council is leaning towards allowing Google to replace existing offices in the center of North Bayshore or near the freeway with taller, denser ones in exchange for reducing the size of offices near wildlife habitats at the edge of the area. On the transportation front, the city's planning to improve pedestrian and bicycle pathways, and to entrust a nonprofit Transportation Management Association (TMA) including Google, Samsung, and Intuit to coordinate a shared shuttle service in the area. The city's "precise plan" is due at the end of the year.
But Google doesn't appear willing to risk its potential growth on Mountain View’s leadership. At a January 22nd, 2013 meeting, Google's VP of real estate David Radcliffe gave the city council something of an ultimatum. "We can either grow up, taking the buildings we have now and making them bigger and denser, or we can sprawl out in a continued march through neighboring business parks and communities," he said, explaining that Google preferred the former. "Having our employees right next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, is critical to our success."
If that was indeed a threat, Google has been carrying it out in the year since. The company has bought or leased a total of nearly 2 million square feet since that meeting, including giant parcels west, south, and east of the company's traditional North Bayshore haunts. "2013 was a jaw-dropping year in terms of their appetite," says Silicon Valley Business Journal reporter Nathan Donato-Weinstein, whose careful record of local real-estate transactions helped inform this story.
And then there's Moffett Field to consider.
Google's lease of the 1,000-acre Moffett Federal Airfield is mystifying at first. According to Deborah Feng, associate director of NASA's Ames Research Center, Google can't do whatever it wants with the land. The company will not only need to renovate the historic hangars but also run the actual airport whenever the California Air National Guard or other government entities need to use it. "What they do in the hangars is their own business as long as it's not illegal," says Feng, adding that Google can use Moffett's sizable airspace too. However, an FAA representative tells us that the company still won't be able to do anything special with that airspace — like testing drones — without explicit approval. Feng says that to her knowledge Google will use the hangars as R&D facilities of some sort, but that the company is limited to a relatively small 90,000 square feet of developable space outside the hangar walls.
Moffett Field begins to make more sense, though, when you consider that it could be part of Google's master plan. In 2008 Google leased 42 acres from NASA at the northwestern corner of Moffett Field as well as nine acres at the east end of Charleston Road, and it soon proposed building futuristic new campuses to rival the Googleplex at both locations. Then it proposed a bridge over the creek separating its huge North Bayshore holdings from the Moffett Field area. If you add the Palo Alto tract that Google bought this year and another proposed bridge between that Palo Alto property and Mountain View, Google could soon have a practically unbroken line of property bridging Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale. With a clear corridor connecting those three areas like one that Google has proposed, the company could reduce its dependence on Highway 101. And if it could house employees on federal property, those people could work, eat at Google cafes, and go home again without ever leaving Google’s island.
Work, eat, and sleep on Google property
Though the city of Mountain View has shot down housing in North Bayshore time and again, it doesn’t have any jurisdiction on the federal land, and it just so happens that parts of that land are already zoned to house as many as 5,000 residents. When Google first announced it was leasing NASA’s "Bay View" parcel in 2008, it wrote that housing would be part of the plan. Now, we’re hearing Google may also sublease nearly 2,000 planned housing units from University Associates, a struggling educational venture which has been trying to build a new Silicon Valley college campus on nearby NASA land.
A bridge too far
There’s just one problem: Mountain View won't let Google build a bridge to Moffett Field.
"We literally just about threw them out on their ear," says council member Jac Siegel. "It’s totally off the table." In a controversial move, the city council trashed the idea due to environmental concerns — without letting Google actually conduct an environmental impact report to gauge the reality of those fears. In his defense, Siegel says that the results of such studies inevitably wind up favoring the company who pays the bills. "If they don’t come up with the right answers, they don’t get hired again," he relates, saying that he’s personally seen it happen in the past. "I don’t feel that we could get a clean shake."
Backed into a corner
But if Google expands at Moffett Field without such a bridge, it could lead to more transportation woes. By buying up millions of square feet of real estate in and around Mountain View and developing millions more on federal land, Google is effectively forcing the city to choose between its conservation-friendly status quo and catering to Google’s growth. There’s not much Mountain View can do. "We have a council that believes in the free market," says council member Kasperzak. "We’re not going to tell a company that it can’t buy any more land."
Kasperzak believes that Google will do the right thing about the gridlock he fears if allowed to. "We can create a better environmental transition by just letting these companies build, but if you fight them at every turn... you'll never get what you want," he says. "The companies know they've got to keep their employees happy, and employees are increasingly less happy. They’re motivated to try and figure something out."
But Siegel worries that Google’s growth will destroy the character of the town. "The turnover in these apartments is 50 percent a year," says Siegel, addressing the common argument that the city should build more rentals in response to demand. "That means every other person who lives there won’t be there next year. That’s building a strong community, now isn’t it!" he gibes.
After eight years on the beat, Daniel DeBolt also fears that his community is disappearing. He recently interviewed Nilda Santiago, one of the city’s human relations commissioners up until a few weeks ago.
"She’s the kind of person who goes out of their way to help people who aren’t getting help from anyone else, and she’s being forced out of the city due to rent increases," DeBolt tells us. As much as he tries to remain objective in his reporting, he says he believes it’s "just not okay to not take a position" on the issues Mountain View faces, and his position is that Google's growth is tearing the community apart. "The community … is being replaced by people who spend most of their day on the Google campus, not really contributing much to civic life," he says (admitting some employees may be exceptions to the rule). But at this point DeBolt believes that something has got to give, and building new housing is paramount.
More likely than not, Google will get its way before long. At the end of this year, terms expire on three of the city council’s conservative majority members, including Siegel, and even he believes the Moffett bridge will resurface once "the right council members" are in charge. While there’s a possibility that the local population will elect more conservationists, it seems likely that between the new elections and the increased pressure to solve transportation and housing, Mountain View will begin to give Google what it wants.
"What I fear mostly is that Mountain View becomes Googleville," says Siegel. "It’s a town controlled by Google, most of their employees live here, and it just becomes like a old factory town on the East Coast where they control anything and everything they want."
"I’ve been around for a while. I remember when Lockheed had 35,000 people. I remember when SGI had 39 buildings out in North Bayshore," Siegel warns. I’m not saying Google’s going anywhere, but if you look at history, it could change. Somebody in India or China or Pakistan could develop new technology that would be cheaper or better … and then there’d be a blight here. You don’t build a city for the current trends, you build it for the long term."
"I don’t want to build a city where the current residents don’t want to live anymore."
Lead image and design by Dylan C. Lathrop