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Googleplex San Jose: What’s Not to Like?

Downtown San Jose will be transformed in the near future if Google’s plan for 8 million square feet of office space hosting 20,000 employees comes to fruition.

And it looks like it will happen.  Google is snapping up property around the Diridon Station (just west of downtown) and San Jose’s leaders are eager to grow the tax and employment base adjacent to the Caltrain station, bus-rapid-transit and future BART and high-speed rail stations.

San Jose’s current general plan pushes high density, mixed-use, transit-oriented development and most urban planners see this as the wave of the future.  Home prices, long commutes and traffic congestion make the sort of suburban-style development still dominant in San Jose unsustainable in the future.

Additionally—and this is very important to our city leaders—San Jose suffers from a jobs/housing imbalance that the Google project could help remedy.   San Jose now has 87 jobs for every 100 employed residents.  Santa Clara has twice as many jobs per 100 employed residents and Palo Alto has three times as many.  That means lots of people who live in San Jose work elsewhere adding to traffic congestion.  But it also means that the tax bases of these other cities are far stronger because they’re employment centers with industry and offices while San Jose’s tax base is predominantly housing.

Google downtown would grow San Jose’s employment and tax base and mitigate traffic congestion thanks to transit access—and half of Google’s current employees currently live south of Mountain View.

So what’s not to like?   Property values are already high and they’re rising rapidly just on the prospect of Google downtown.  Housing costs are at crisis levels now and a Google project that’s predominantly offices would substantially exacerbate the crisis.  Low- and middle-income workers who live here could face displacement, perhaps forced into long commutes or driven from the Valley entirely.

The City and Google need to figure out how to add significantly to San Jose’s housing stock to avoid exacerbating our current crisis.  We don’t normally expect private industry to do this, but Google has shown some willingness in Mountain View and might do more in San Jose.  The City can help with zoning adjustments (lots of building is already happening downtown) and facilitating affordable housing projects.  State action is likely, too, and that could help.

Housing will be a special challenge for the 8,000-10,000 low-wage service workers likely to be employed in association with Google—janitors and food service and security staff.  It’s reasonable to ask Google to at least get them all up to San Jose’s minimal “living wage” (hourly pay sufficient to support life in the Valley).

Google is a great employer for most of its workers and the company has a strong record of innovative architecture for its campuses.  San Jose couldn’t ask for a better corporate partner for development on the scale now proposed.

But Google, the City and all of us need to be aware of the challenges the proposed development presents, especially in housing and sustainability for all the workers involved.

For more on this, check out the September episode of Valley Politics!

—Terry Christensen, Co-producer and Host, Valley Politics and Professor Emeritus, San Jose State University

The Outlet