Through all the talk of transforming North Bayshore into an urban neighborhood of tomorrow -- of Google and Mountain View partnering to bring schools, mass transit and 9,850 homes to the heart of Silicon Valley -- that vision now seems to be in limbo.
As a grueling Sept. 26 City Council meeting on North Bayshore stretched into the early morning hours of Sept. 27, the city's relationship with Google became suddenly strained as the company's representatives made clear that their offer to cooperate with the city's ambitious housing plan was very conditional.
Google representatives dropped a gauntlet, saying they needed 800,000 square feet of additional office space in North Bayshore beyond what the city was planning. If the city denied that bonus, it would be a deal-breaker for any housing getting built, warned Joe Van Belleghem, senior design director at Google.
"Just to be clear: no new office; no new residential," Van Belleghem told the council. "We've been very clear all along that we needed this extra office space to make this work."
At that moment -- about 1 a.m. -- Mountain View's years of planning for North Bayshore turned into a big game of chicken. Was the city really asking too much from one of the world's wealthiest companies? Would Google really pull out of building housing even though it would benefit the company's own workers?
Some council members made clear they thought they should call the bluff.
"I think the housing will get built," said Councilman Lenny Siegel. "Adding more offices doesn't make any sense to me. Once Google looks at this, they'll realize they need the 10,000 homes to add even a portion of what they want."
The Tuesday night study session represented one of the last steps before the city finishes its precise plan for the North Bayshore area. For years, Mountain View has drafted its plans around adding 3.6 million square feet of new offices to an area already packed with corporate offices and clogged with traffic. Following a series of approvals and property swaps, Google was able to obtain most of this new development allocation.
After a political swing in 2015, Mountain View's City Council voted to change course and dramatically alter the city's North Bayshore plans to include thousands of homes next to the tech offices. This vision called for a live-work neighborhood where tech employees could walk to work, potentially reducing the road traffic while helping ameliorate the regional housing crisis.
From the start, Google representatives cheered on the idea of bringing housing to the area. And the city needed Google on board since it is the predominant landowner. Google representatives had long hinted that the city should sweeten the deal by considering extra office space as an incentive for building housing in the area. But the company never proposed specific numbers for this idea, at least not publicly.
That changed on Tuesday night, as multiple council members revealed the company had asked for 800,000 extra square feet of office space in private talks. The number came as surprise to everyone else in the auditorium, including city planning staff. Mountain View Community Development Director Randy Tsuda later told the Voice this was the first time he had heard of that number come up.
Up until that point, the discussion at the meeting was dominated by other considerations. Dozens of affordable housing advocates, school officials and union members spoke in support of the North Bayshore precise plan, and especially its potential to bring thousands of sorely needed homes to the area. The city's plans to require 20 percent of this new housing to be subsidized for a range of incomes would inspire other cities to follow suit, said Pilar Lorenzana from the housing advocacy nonprofit, [email protected]
"Leadership such as yours and the policies that you taken on are felt across the Valley and the region," she said. "We look to you to be the leaders that you need to be."
The last time the council had examined the precise plan, in June, the discussion was dominated by an idea to set an early "check-in" point to assess North Bayshore when 1,500 to 3,000 new homes were built. That idea raised a flurry of suspicion among housing advocates as well as Google officials that the city was scaling back its goal to build 9,850 homes. At the time, the council was split in a 3-3 impasse on the idea.
On Tuesday, the council unanimously agreed to go a different direction and monitor development based on the traffic congestion and transportation improvements. Mayor Ken Rosenberg gave assurances to the crowd that "9,850 units is the goal, make no mistake."
The meeting veered into uncertainty as the council members began pitching untested ideas for housing. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, who years ago had opposed any housing in North Bayshore, came out emphatically in support of maximizing affordable housing. Twenty percent wasn't enough, she said, and she urged her colleagues to raise the requirement as high as 40 percent, saying Seattle had successfully set that mandate.
"If we're serious about socioeconomic diversity, I think we have to reach further," she said. "If we never try, then we'll never know."
It wasn't the only new curve-ball city leaders threw at this late stage in the process. They asked staff to add in requirements for environmental monitoring, local hiring for construction jobs, support for union apprenticeship and more incentives for ownership housing. Google's plans to develop restaurants and retail space also needed to come with some guarantees that the company would help these businesses survive, they said.
For Google, the straw that broke the camel's back came when the talk moved to bonus office space in North Bayshore. A thin majority of four council members were against the idea of setting up a system to consider more office growth, even if it complied with traffic limits and other requirements. Abe-Koga spoke forcefully against the idea, describing it as a loophole for the 3.6 million square feet of office space outlined in the precise plan. She described how Google officials had told her in private meetings how they wanted 800,000 more square feet approved in the area.
"If you're serious about the jobs-housing imbalance, why would we allow more office space?" she said. "What's the point of doing a precise plan if it's not going to be followed?"
It was a growing list of demands, and Rosenberg and Councilman Chris Clark expressed nervousness that these stipulations would discourage housing growth. They appeared to be correct.
Earlier in the meeting, Van Belleghem, the Google representative, had expressed wholehearted support for the city's 9,850-home plan. Now clearly frustrated, he returned to the lectern to warn city officials they were asking too much. Google is currently developing a new futuristic campus at Charleston East and soon intends to build similar campuses along Landings Drive and Shoreline Boulevard. Those sites would use up all of the company's share of the 3.6 million square feet of office space, he said, but they would need to build out two new sites, one along Shorebird Way and the other on the south side of Charleston Road.
If Google had no way to make those office sites feasible, then the cost of building out residential sites wouldn't pencil out, he said.
"We can't invest this kind of money that's necessary for great residential, at 20 percent affordable with the kind of placemaking you want, with the kind of environmental objectives you want. We just can't do it," he said. "The reality is no new office, no residential."
Clark warned his colleagues they could be sending the city's long-sought housing package off a cliff. He backed the idea of considering future office projects, which the city didn't necessarily have to approve.
"If you're saying you want all these things, there's going to be no housing built -- If I were Google, I wouldn't do anything." he said. "If you want to call the bluff, then have at it ... but I think we'll regret it."
In a straw vote, a majority of council members -- Abe-Koga, Siegel, Lisa Matichak, and John McAlister -- opted against adding a process to consider additional office space.
Speaking after the meeting, Community Development Director Tsuda said Google could still propose additional projects through the city's gatekeeper process.
"As for what Google's response will be, that's really unclear at this point," he said.