Mountain View City Council members got a first look Tuesday at how Google plans to transform 40 acres of the city into high-density housing and offices, outlining a vision in which people can walk and bike to work along a network of parks and open space.
The project, dubbed the Middlefield Park Master Plan, calls for up to 1,900 new homes in an area currently dominated by sprawling suburban tech offices -- the vast majority occupied by Google. Office buildings would be razed to build new, taller tech offices totaling up to 1.3 million square feet.
Google's proposal is the centerpiece of the city's plans to evolve the East Whisman area into a mixed-use center, complete with an air-tight policy that maintains a jobs-housing balance. The tech giant's plans abide by the policy, and prioritizes dense housing construction north of Middlefield Road and east of Ellis Street.
The master plan pulls together 14 East Whisman parcels, with the southern half dominated by residential uses. Two buildings at the corner of Middlefield and Ellis can be up to 123 feet tall, while the offices and other residential buildings to the northeast will cap out at 75 feet in height. Connecting the buildings is a network of open space, including a central 4.75-acre neighborhood park called Maude Park that will be owned by the city.
Google is required to provide at least 15% affordable housing as part of its proposal, but the company is reluctant to provide those units alongside its market-rate apartments. Company officials told the city that doing so didn't pencil out, and could challenge the feasibility of its development plans.
Instead, Google is proposing giving the city 2.4 acres of land -- separate from its own residential buildings -- to build an all-affordable housing complex. Doing so means the city can focus in-house support services for low-income residents, and could put construction of the units on an accelerated timeline, said Google real estate director Michael Tymoff.
"Land dedication also allows the city to control these units in perpetuity, and decide on the unit mix while targeting deeper levels of affordability," Tymoff said.
The idea was met with mixed emotions at the council's March 9 study session. Resident Cliff Chambers, speaking on behalf of the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning, said inclusionary housing is the preference, but Google's alternative is worth considering if it means more affordable units. He emphasized that the overall project should be something that is doable and will actually get built.
But City Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga wondered whether the city would be getting a raw deal. Google is seeking to provide between 335 and 380 affordable units, and cramming all of them on 2.4 acres would be an "extreme stretch" and require unprecedented density, she said.
"I don't want this to be way more extreme in terms of density than what we've done elsewhere in the city," Abe-Koga said. "I think we have to do that deep dive and look at what is really possible with that acreage."
Another request by Google, which council members reluctantly agreed to, was a lengthy 20-year time frame in which the entirety of the project can be built. Tymoff said the timeline is necessary to account for "market cycles" that the project will experience, along with a high-cost early investment in residential development that is only recovered in later office phases.
Council members were also split on accepting a request by Google that, once the master plan is approved, specific project proposals within the master plan can skip over council approval and go straight to the city's Zoning Administrator. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said she worried doing so would mean less public participation and less awareness of some of the city's largest redevelopment proposals to date.
"Just the fact that something so big is being approved by a body other than the council -- I just don't feel like that's the right direction to go," she said.
But a majority of the council agreed to take the streamlined approach. Councilman Lucas Ramirez said he didn't see much point in having the council weigh in on projects that meet all the criteria of the master plan and zoning rules, and that state laws significantly limit the council's means to deny code-compliant projects.
"I don't see a lot of value in having a public hearing where we can take public comment, but can't do anything with it because the state has eroded our ability to make changes," he said.
Adding to the interconnected neighborhood vibe of the project, Google is proposing 20,000 square feet of ground-floor space that will be available for nonprofit, civic or neighborhood groups free of charge, along with 25,000 square feet for small businesses and a special fund for supporting locally owned and minority-owned businesses.
But how well it will be supported is an open question, and something Matichak said could go unused once the master plan is built out.
"If it's a meeting space people can rent, I'm concerned that it won't be rented all that much," she said. "Then we will have dead space along an area that we want active."
City officials say Google's proposal is due for another round of community meetings to solicit feedback in the spring and summer this year.