Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
After a storm of community resistance, the tech giant has reversed its plans to build a new campus in the city’s trendy Kreuzberg district.
Did Berlin really just say no to one of the most powerful technology firms in the world? Last week, Google announced that it would not be opening a 32,000-square-foot campus in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, backing down from the plan after widespread local protests and even a lukewarm attitude from officialdom. In an era where American cities have been contorting themselves to host Amazon’s HQ2, the resistance to Google’s overture might seem incredible, especially as Berlin’s economy is not one of strongest among Germany’s major cities.
Zoom in a little closer, however, and a more complex picture emerges. The fight over Google’s Berlin campus was not about rejecting a tech leviathan as such. It was about preserving the integrity of a specific neighborhood—one in which Google would have struggled to fit.
Had Google chosen an office block in one of the Berlin business districts that are already home to many corporate HQs, or pledged to build a campus out on the city fringe, they would have probably been welcomed with open arms. The forceful local backlash, which involved two years of counter-campaigning (including a brief site occupation) from a memorably titled activist coalition called Fuck Off Google, came about partly because they chose a neighborhood that was already under considerable stress. Kreuzberg, the western Berlin location picked by Google, has both an especially distinct recent past and a pretty fragile present status quo.
During Berlin’s Cold War partition, Kreuzberg’s run-down, underpopulated pre-1914 tenements were magnets for people who struggled to fit in elsewhere, both in Germany and other parts of West Berlin. Turkish migrants, facing higher rents and housing discrimination elsewhere, began moving into the area in the 1960s, and seekers of non-traditional lifestyles—first hippies, then punks—soon joined them. Squatters occupied and repaired un-renovated buildings, and steadily, the area developed as an area for alternative culture and nightlife—West Berlin’s only all-night subway line used to run here to ferry bar- and club-goers.
Since reunification, Kreuzberg has both changed and not changed. Wealthier residents have flocked here because the district has so many older buildings, having survived World War II with less bomb damage than many other neighborhoods in the city. It also has a central location, and retains some of its edgy cultural atmosphere, diluted but not entirely dispatched by gentrification. Along the tree-lined canal where Google hoped to site its campus, apartments now go for silly rents and beautiful old tenements have frequently been capped with an extra layer of penthouses. Smaller tech businesses and boutiques have encroached, while housing costs have spiraled and less-affluent residents have often been forced to pack their bags.
But Germany’s relatively protective tenancy and rental laws have done a better job preserving Kreuzberg’s raffish soul—and keeping low-income residents in place—than those in, say, London or New York City. The local Green-led borough has also been unusually proactive in fighting to keep local housing affordable. As a result, any development plan here, whether large or small, comes under intense scrutiny.
It’s into this delicate, complex, and largely residential community that Google’s huge campus would have lumbered. Taking over a handsome 1920s red-brick power station, the campus’ employees would have swarmed the local housing market, triggering a scramble for affordable apartments nearby in which Google workers would have always been the highest bidders. The campus wouldn’t have been just another step in the gradual gentrification that Kreuzberg has been experiencing for decades: It would have been a thunderclap of affluence.
The withdrawal of Google’s Kreuzberg campus plan should thus be framed more as one neighborhood’s successful effort to avoid being disrupted, rather than a wholesale rejection of Big Tech. This doesn’t mean that Berlin is suddenly an inherently anti-business city. Indeed, there is already talk of a counter-proposal, with the center-right CDU (the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel) inviting Google to set up shop in the less-hip eastern district of Lichtenberg. (Absent Google, that Kreuzberg power station is now slated to have a more on-brand tenant: two humanitarian NGOs.) But the Kreuzberg saga should be a lesson for other major companies as they ponder where to place their giant corporate feet in cities: They must carefully consider the effect their intervention can have on a district expressly chosen for its desirability.
For the sake of Berlin’s economy, it might be a pity to miss out—at least for now—on landing such a major employer. But it’s also a pity for the city that, when choosing a location, Google showed such short-sightedness as to its own impacts.