The city of Mountain View is planning for a surge in new offices and homes in North Bayshore, placing dense new development just a short jaunt away from the baylands. But new sea level rise estimates show that future development could very well end up underwater without flood protection, and it's unclear who is going to pick up the costly bill.
Earlier this year, Google announced its proposal to build 7,000 homes in North Bayshore alongside 3 million square feet of offices less than a mile from the bay. It's the largest single development proposal in the city's history, complicated by the fact that it's all in a low-lying area subject to flooding due to stormwater runoff and high tides. Protecting properties in North Bayshore was previously estimated to cost $45.7 million, but city officials revealed last month that costs have ballooned to a whopping $121.8 million.
Driving the high costs of flood protection are revised sea level rise estimates, which predict that climate change will drive up sea levels by between 23 to 42 inches by 2070. City Council members agreed at a meeting last month that the city should prepare for the "high" sea level rise scenario of 42 inches, but doing so complicates planning for North Bayshore. A long list of expensive projects including levee and floodwall improvements will be necessary to offset the higher sea levels, city officials said, and almost all of it has no funding source.
It's possible that most of it will be paid for by taxpayers out in North Bayshore, said Dawn Cameron, the city's public works director. The area has its own dedicated tax district -- the Shoreline Regional Park Community -- that generates revenue used by the city primarily to fund improvements in North Bayshore. But dedicating the funding to flood protection means less cash for the city to spend on other amenities in the area, including parks and community spaces.
Laura Blakely, a Mountain View Whisman School District board member speaking on her own behalf, said she was "shocked" by the $121.8 million price tag for projects that would primarily benefit Google, a company that reportedly generated $55.3 billion in the first quarter of 2021. If Google wants to build homes and offices in North Bayshore, it has the money, she said.
"Google and the developers should pay their fair share for the projects and not just have the city fund all of the infrastructure costs out of shoreline tax revenue, leaving only crumbs for the residents of Mountain View," she said.
Putting the funding obligation on Google is a difficult proposition. Developers are typically required to offset the cost of infrastructure upgrades that are needed as a direct result of the project, which includes things like traffic mitigation. But Google's development in North Bayshore, as big as it is, cannot be linked to the global phenomenon of climate change and sea level rise.
Google will be indirectly bankrolling the projects through Shoreline's tax district. As the largest landowner in the area, current and future development in North Bayshore would generate tens of millions each year in property tax that can be reverted right back into flood protection projects. What's more, Google vowed in its application that it would be committed to building projects that take sea level rise into account.
The tech giant said its development blueprint -- the Shorebird Master Plan -- prioritizes development in upland areas away from the most vulnerable places in North Bayshore, and will have elevated floor heights for all new construction. Google is also banking on the expansion of the Charleston flood detention basin, which will divert floodwater during a major storm and allow it to pool in a safe spot away from homes and offices.
Bolstering the company's climate change resiliency efforts, the design of Google's North Bayshore development is being headed by the Australian-based contractor Lendlease, which has a track record for developing projects that factor in rising sea levels and rising temperatures. Holley Chant, Lendlease's director of sustainability for Google Development Ventures, said it's important to design the buildings and the surrounding community knowing what the area's climate and conditions will be like 40 to 80 years out.
She pointed to the company's development of a project called Clippership Wharf in east Boston as an example of future-proofing against sea level rise, in which waterfront housing was built along the shoreline of Boston's harbor. A lot of work went into creating salt marshes, planting native species and enhancing rocky beaches to act as a natural barrier against sea level rise, she said, and it didn't cost much to weave it into the scope of the project.
"This wasn't some additional cost, it was part of the strategy for how do we make a beautiful site," Chant said. "You're not adding costs, it's just part of the development."
When asked about who typically pays for flood protection infrastructure -- the developer or the local government -- Chant said she finds the best solution is a regional approach and a public-private partnership whenever possible. But the positive sign is that more and more developers are willing to weave climate resiliency into their building designs from day one and make it a priority, and investors are likewise seeing the value in a project that can actually last.
"It's part of a changing business for a more resilient future," she said. "It is new, but the opportunity to have these discussions, to use the science, to break cost barriers -- it's all very much alive and well. Companies have a commitment to do things like this."