Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a University Professor and Director of Cities at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and a Distinguished Fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
A new Google campus in San Jose will be a chance for the tech giant to pioneer a more equitable form of urban development—and regain public goodwill.
San Jose is blessed with fantastic weather, beautiful natural surroundings, proximity to the world’s most successful companies, and perhaps the most urban, walkable environment of any Bay Area community south of San Francisco. Home to more than 1 million people, it is the third-largest city in California, behind only Los Angeles and San Diego, and the 10th largest in the entire United States. As tech companies have become increasingly interested in urban locations as a way to attract talent, San Jose has seen its locational stock rise, with companies like Adobe and Samsung undergoing major expansions there.
While all urbanist eyes have been trained on Amazon’s much-talked-about second headquarters, another tech giant, Google, has quietly proposed to build a massive new campus in downtown San Jose. It will be located in the largely vacant lands near Diridon Station and will host up to 20,000 Google employees in as much as 8 million square feet of office space. For context, the company’s current headquarters, the “Googleplex” in Mountain View, contains just 3.1 million square feet of office space.
As the city and company negotiate an agreement, community groups have already begun advocating for an arrangement that benefits not just Google and its high-paid tech workers but also the city and its residents. San Jose is no Palo Alto or Mountain View—it’s far more diverse, both racially and socioeconomically. And it is beset, as much as any other city, by the hallmark problems of the new urban crisis: exorbitant housing prices, mind-numbing traffic, and severe economic and racial inequality.
As it moves forward with this project, Google has the opportunity to forge a new model of more inclusive, tech-fueled urban development. It’s in the company’s interest to do so. Its reputation is suffering as it and other tech companies are pilloried as monopolistic, even exploitative enterprises, with little commitment to their communities. Just a few years ago, the brand’s biggest problem was local protests against “Google buses.” Today it is reckoning with a Congressional investigation and widespread public mistrust. Investing in more inclusive prosperity in San Jose could help bolster the company’s challenged image and brand.
The city should demand nothing less. While San Jose can certainly use the jobs and investment, the local government should stand firm and demand a fair, forward-thinking deal that makes the city’s needs a priority. After all, it has one of the few urban, transit-connected sites in the region where Google, or any tech company, for that matter, can go.
So how can Google be a good neighbor to the people San Jose?
First of all, Google’s campus should be as different from Apple’s new “Spaceship” as possible. Rather than being a campus per se, Google should build a fine-grained, mixed-use neighborhood, with walkways between buildings and numerous public spaces. It should take advantage of its downtown location by emphasizing transit, walking, and biking, and by keeping parking to an absolute minimum. But these are no-brainers, which have already been hinted at in the initial discussions.
Where Google could really be a trendsetter is by building an amount of housing commensurate with the number of new jobs it’s bringing to San Jose. Because housing is so difficult to build in California, “the market” cannot be expected to suddenly accommodate 20,000 well-heeled workers. Building a large number of new housing units in conjunction with the office construction would not only prevent a major shock to the housing market, it would also improve the experience of the new neighborhood, be a boon to businesses downtown, and help boost transit usage.
A significant percentage of these housing units should be below market rate. The San Francisco Giants set a new gold standard in the Bay Area when they agreed to make 40 percent of the units in their Mission Rock development affordable. Google and Trammell Crow, its real estate partner, should be able to meet this threshold. Perhaps Google could set aside a portion of these units as “workforce housing” for teachers, firefighters, and police. Google could also build units for its own service workers, including cafeteria and custodial staff—and while they’re at it, they could pay them a living wage.
San Jose’s housing challenges are, of course, closely related to its transportation challenges. Diridon Station, located right next to the proposed campus, is the elephant in the room here. City and state officials have grand plans for the station, or “the Grand Central of the West,” which will eventually serve high-speed rail and BART, in addition to Caltrain and VTA. The problem with these plans is no one knows how to pay for them.
Enter Google. Developing a financial mechanism for Google to contribute to the reconstruction of Diridon would be complicated, to say the least. But it should be part of the conversation about their new campus. Perhaps the city could create a special property tax for Diridon-adjacent plots. Or Google’s community benefits agreement could include a substantial commitment to transit improvements.
No matter how it happens, it is in Google’s interest that Diridon Station becomes the grand, multimodal hub that it is meant to be. BART access could radically simplify Google employees’ commutes, and high-speed rail would allow executives to easily take meetings in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Turning the station into an iconic contemporary landmark would symbolize San Jose’s arrival as an urban, 21st-century global city—something that Google is clearly interested in associating itself with.
With President Trump in office and the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area can’t expect the federal government to help with their progressive, urban agendas. The flip side of this sad reality is that Americans are expecting other institutions to step up and show their true colors.
Do the Bay Area’s nominally progressive tech companies really care about making our communities and our world a better place? Or are they simply opportunists, relentlessly extracting value wherever they can, and leaving the rest of us to deal with the consequences?
In San Jose, Google has an opportunity to show where it really stands.