Google's hometown of Mountain View has become a flash point for the debate over Silicon Valley's resistance to allowing new housing for its exploding workforce, and on Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle entered the fray.
In a column by respected urban design columnist John King, it is noted that Mountain View is home to a thriving downtown and many of the country's most "innovative addresses" such as LinkedIn and Google, but King says "when it comes to mapping a future with housing options for the talented people who work within its boundaries, the South Bay city of 75,000 is stuck in the past."
At the heart of his front-page piece is Mountain View and Silicon Valley's housing shortage. King notes that Google's hometown is planning for 8,000 new homes and 20,000 new jobs by 2030, according to Mountain View's 2012 general plan, (though he doesn't mention that much more than that is in the planning pipeline). There is growing concern that all the job growth -- without commensurate housing growth -- is driving up housing costs and causing more commuter traffic.
King cuts to a major issue many have had with Mountain View the city's refusal to build housing aimed at Google employees near its campus north of Highway 101. He writes that "when the city had the chance to strike out in a new direction, it froze." What he's referring to is the 2012 City Council vote against housing along North Shoreline Boulevard.
The council voted against what King describes as "a mixed-use corridor with 1,100 housing units above shops and cafes. The idea was to add a human scale to the clogged artery while creating housing options for younger workers who wouldn't mind small units if they were close to their jobs, with things to do downstairs." Planning director Randy Tsuda is quoted calling it an opportunity to "prove the concept, see if it can expand."
While many tech employees might prefer to live in a more urban setting near their jobs rather than commute to and from San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose, City Council members Ronit Bryant, Jac Siegel, Laura Macias and Margaret Abe-Koga opposed the North Bayshore housing plan in a 4-3 vote in 2012.
King calls on Mountain View to change course, to be a model for the rest of Silicon Valley's more suburban cities, by building "engaging, inclusive twists on the suburban norm that other regions will seek to emulate -- rather than traffic-choked, expensive enclaves that show the perils of sticking our heads in the sand."
King's column did not sit well with council member Ronit Bryant, who was spurred to write an op-ed in response, published in the Voice opinion section this week.
"While he has good things to say about our city, Mr. King is unhappy that we are not planning to build housing in North Bayshore, which he (and others) seem to see as some kind of panacea for the housing problems of the Bay Area," Bryant writes.
"Could we in Mountain View ever build enough to lower housing costs on the Peninsula?" Bryant writes. "I doubt it very much."
Bryant suggests that North Bayshore housing would drive away Mountain View's tech companies, though Google strongly supported the original North Bayshore housing plan. "Could we encourage businesses to leave or to stop adding jobs and then flood North Bayshore with housing instead?" she writes. "Perhaps. Would that be good for Mountain View or for our region? I don't think so."
Bryant concludes by saying that the council's chosen North Bayshore plan, without housing, is "more innovative: a magical place along a restored Bay and under the migratory birds' Pacific Flyway, where the landscape and the wildlife are protected and enhanced and high-tech individuals are inspired to greater creativity," She adds, "It will be a place where residents and employees find respite from the built environment" and that employees there will be connected to "services-rich" residential neighborhoods by new bike and pedestrian buildings and transit services.
In response to Bryant's op-ed, King said in an email "why is it an either/or? Why can't you have the flyway and open space AND interesting housing along Shoreline?"
"The reason I selected Mountain View for the piece is that Mountain View is a city that really does seem to have such a remarkable set of opportunities," King said in a phone interview. "It does have the transit access, it does have the Bayshore access, it does have a desirability and creativity (to be both) suburban and settled but also be varied and dynamic with lots of places to live and explore."
"Mountain View with North Bayshore has a chance to pull the residential city into the business zone and at the same time use that as a mechanism to restore and improve the Shoreline as habitat," King told the Voice.
King suggested that the city reconsider "the idea that we have our life, which is the the way Mountain View has been and always should be, and then there is this thing on the other side of the 101 that generates lots of tax money, and that's terrific, but we'd just assume it isn't there."
"Mountain View has the chance in the North Bayshore area to really create an attractive, exciting sustainable and ecologically cool 21st century version of suburbia," King said. "Why not take the chance to see if it works?"
Lenny Siegel of the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View has personally known Bryant for years, but said her op-ed "misses the point" and took issue with many of her assertions
"It's no surprise that people elsewhere in the Bay Area are upset at Mountain View," Siegel said. "I believe the council's overall planning strategy dumps problems created in Mountain View elsewhere in the Bay Area. It sends well paid employees to neighborhoods in San Francisco and the East Bay, causing gentrification."
"It's not just other people (from other cities) being hurt," Siegel said. "People in Mountain View are being driven out or forced to live in overcrowded situations."
Siegel also took issue with Bryant's statement that the city is losing diversity simply because "Mountain View became such an attractive place to live."
"It's so attractive in the sense that it's a place where jobs are," Siegel said. "People will pay a lot of money to live close to where their jobs are. The council isn't hearing the community's concern that our quality of life is not just being undermined, but destroyed."
Bryant also says the North Bayshore housing did not include enough homes to support a grocery store and other services, which is often said to require a community of 5,000 homes. She calls the smaller number of homes in the 2012 plan a recipe for "temporary" housing. At the time, Bryant didn't stress this concern, but did compare the homes to factory dorm housing in China, where employees "do not live happily ever after."
"If indeed the number of housing units proposed for North Bayshore was too few, then they should have considered an option for more, not just less, and considered the environmental and social impacts of it," Siegel said.