Imagine a futuristic bay-front enclave for Google and Microsoft employees where no cars are allowed, buildings have green roofs and no carbon footprint, people travel in automated pods and live in apartments among the office buildings.
That is a vision that shimmered before City Council members and planning commissioners during a brainstorming session June 28 about how the city and Google could create a futuristic campus worthy of the company's avant-garde reputation.
Google's headquarters dominates the area north of Highway 101 known as "North Bayshore" and the city is updating that neighborhood's blueprint for future development in what is known as the city's general plan update.
A car-less future?
"What if we just didn't have cars" in North Bayshore? said council member Laura Macias. "What if we found a way to do it without that? We're all going to find a way to drive, if we can. But if we all have to park our car, who knows? Maybe it could be a model for other cities."
With traffic problems a serious concern on the two streets in and out of North Bayshore, the council and commission appeared to seriously consider Macias' comments. It wouldn't be major departure from Google's culture, as Google already shuttles employees in from numerous locations, including San Francisco and Mountain View's downtown train station. And Google places hundreds of unlocked bicycles around North Bayshore to facilitate the mobility of its workers.
"Saying no cars at all -- I agree with you but that means more parking downtown and using a shuttle," said Mayor Ronit Bryant. "It means we have to build huge parking lots. There are no easy answers."
Bryant pointed to the model of Stanford University, which is allowed by the city of Palo Alto to add buildings as long as car traffic does not exceed 1989 levels. So the University pays its employees not to drive to work and operates a shuttle system. "They are growing and growing and traffic is not growing," Bryant said.
Google already has more employees than parking spaces typically required by the city per employee, and the company continues to grow. But most agree that adding parking lots and large parking garages in the Shoreline area would be a mistake.
"We make people build parking garages, we can make them build a transportation structure instead," said council member Mike Kasperzak, who added that "It's not efficiency to only use half the land, half the time" for a parking lot.
Councilman Jac Siegel said the city needed to be "specific" about how it would deal with traffic in the Shoreline area, either by not allowing cars or by building a personal rapid transit system. The Council has already passed a resolution supporting the concept of a system of automated pods that ride on dedicated guideways on the ground or overhead. A NASA Ames-based company, Unimodal, has said it would fund such a system in Mountain View if the city stepped up to be the company's first.
Or the city could leave its options open.
"Maybe it's a good place to allow for some experimentation, trying different concepts out," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga.
Whatever the city does, Google's real estate director Dan Hoffman said he was "inspired" by the discussion and a young Google employee and resident said it gave him "faith" that the city's plans for Google's neighborhood were headed in the right direction.
A second downtown?
Kasperzak said the city didn't need another downtown, and that he was unsure what a neighborhood of Google offices, stores and housing would look like. Some envisioned college-style dorms. A city staff report mentions a "campus" feel as being important to Google.
Councilwoman Abe-Koga asked why Google couldn't build housing above offices. Meanwhile, famous architect William McDonough, who inspired the council with a presentation in April, advocates for buildings that can be easily switched between office and housing use.
"We don't want it to look like all the other business developments with tall, strange buildings and empty areas with benches nobody would ever want to sit," said Mayor Bryant. "Any intensification needs to go hand-in-hand with green roofs and much more focus on public transit."
Bryant's comments about green roofs alluded to an idea advocated by McDonough that involves growing vegetation on roofs to insulate buildings and make use of storm water, as is done on Google's YouTube buildings in San Bruno.
Google had previously hired McDonough as a consultant and he created in 2008 the "McDonough master plan," a general plan for the neighborhood which includes stores and homes along Shoreline Boulevard south of Charleston Road and a transit hub at Shoreline Boulevard and Charleston Road.
Similarly, Google sent a letter in February to the city pushing the city to allow homes and stores in the area so that North Bayshore could "continue to be the center of sustainable development for Google's HQ campus."
However, council members are hesitant to put housing in the area, which they said would permanently eat away the city's valuable industrial land and potentially block industrial development nearby.
"Five thousand units we were told, minimum," Council member Siegel said of the housing Google wants. "That seems to be a bit of an issue for me."
Commissioner Rachel Grossman disagreed, saying, "Locating housing out here is a way to have a more complete neighborhood. People can walk and bike."
It's a way to solve the "traffic challenges we have," she said.
Kasperzak believes a lack of housing for Google's 10,000 Mountain View workers has driven up the cost of the city's housing. "If you have to drive from Tracy to work here, it really isn't a sustainable project."
No high-rises for Google
Dan Hoffman, Google's real estate director, reassured the city last Monday that at Google "we're not into building 10-story high-rises" in North Bayshore. The Council has already expressed support for allowing office buildings up to seven stories tall in the area, citing the need for flexibility in the future.
"We do like the views of the mountains and Shoreline Park," Hoffman said.
What Google wants to build may look more along the lines of the design Google submitted to the city in 2008 for a five-story, amorphously sleek 310,000 square foot building that incorporates nearly every innovation in green design. The plans have been on hold, but city planner Nancy Minicucci called the building "extraordinary" and architect Yvonne Farrell said it had the potential to be the greenest office building in the world. And while high density might be allowed under proposed zoning changes, the building hardly dominates the nine-acre lot it sits on.