Why Google’s Hometown Said “No” to a Massive New Googleplex

Google North Bayshore campus
This isn’t happening.

Image courtesy of Google

Google had a bold, futuristic vision for a gleaming new campus adjacent to its current headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Mountain View, California had other ideas.

This week, the city council rejected the bulk of Google’s plans by a 4-3 vote. Instead, it set aside the majority of the developable office space in question for a more modest project proposed by another local tech company: LinkedIn.

The move will give LinkedIn a chance to build its own new headquarters as part of a mixed-use development that will also include a movie theater, fitness club, shops, and restaurants, all open to the public. And it will leave Google with rights to less than one-fourth of the commercial square footage it had hoped to build—about enough for one of the four main buildings it had planned.

“To have one building—it’s a significant blow,” a Google vice president told the council just before its late-night vote, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. “I’m not sure how I make any of this economically viable with one building.”

As I detailed a few months ago, Google had brought together a pair of celebrity architect-designers to realize its high-concept dream of a fancy new Googleplex beside the San Francisco Bay. You can see their plans and watch a gauzy promotional video for them here. The complex was to include tree-lined public hiking and biking paths meandering past a series of glass-wrapped modular buildings shaped like circus tents.

Google North Bayshore drawings
Google’s plans called for modular, tentlike buildings wrapped in glass.

Image courtesy of Google

Alas, it was not to be. Google still has the right to develop land it owns elsewhere in Mountain View, albeit not as much as it had hoped to build on its North Bayshore property. If it wants to build a dramatic new ’plex, it may have to look beyond its hometown.

Mountain View, population 75,000-ish, has been central to Silicon Valley since the days of William Shockley. But over the past decade, it has become nearly synonymous in the popular mind with the Internet search giant. So it might come as a surprise to outsiders that the city would thwart Google’s ambitious growth plan in favor of a less dazzling proposal from a less dazzling local Internet company.

Why did the city risk souring relations with its largest taxpayer and employer?

Part of it has to do with the specifics of the two companies’ plans. Backed by well-to-do residents who don’t want their multimillion-dollar backyards blighted, local elected officials on the Peninsula tend to err on the cautious side when it comes to new development. As the New York Times’ Conor Dougherty points out, LinkedIn’s plans required no special exceptions to the city’s height or density limits and were touted as more shovel-ready than Google’s far-out designs.

But there was also a deeper motive underlying the council’s decision. As Google has grown, some in Mountain View worry it’s becoming a de facto company town, reliant on the fortunes of a single massive corporation. (The Verge had a good piece last year on how Google is “taking over Mountain View.”)

Google owns so much of the city’s property that other local tech companies, including LinkedIn, felt hemmed in. And whereas Google is entrenched locally, there was concern that LinkedIn might leave the city altogether if it didn’t win this battle.

“I don’t think the decision was a reflection of any dissatisfaction with Google’s proposal,” Randy Tsuda, Mountain View’s community development director, told me in a phone interview Wednesday. “But several council members expressed the desire to really accommodate LinkedIn’s growth and allow them to remain in North Bayshore.” The council also wanted to reserve some room for new residential development in the neighborhood, and it appeared to view Google’s plans as less compatible with that goal, even though Google itself has long called for the same. Regardless, that would be a welcome move in a city whose job growth has drastically outpaced its housing supply.

The question now is, what will become of Google’s grand plans? The company hasn’t said, but it did indicate that it will continue to expand both in Mountain View and elsewhere in the Bay Area in the years to come. It has office projects in the works everywhere from downtown San Francisco to Redwood City and Sunnyvale to Moffett Field, which is situated on the border of Mountain View but is owned by NASA.

There is also some speculation that the company could look to build in Oakland, whose historically blue-collar downtown has seen an influx of young professionals priced out of San Francisco and the Peninsula. There would be some irony in that, as those exorbitant prices are driven by the vast wealth that tech companies like Google have minted.

A Google office in Oakland would likely be a magnet for the city’s famously frisky protesters, including the contingent that has coalesced to counter the techie invasion (and its buses) in recent years. The company would probably prefer to build its next homes in environs more compatible with its sunny, utopian vibe. But it’s telling that even Mountain View, one of the more business-friendly jurisdictions in the region, has come to regard Google’s presence with some ambivalence. If Google can’t build its Shangri-La there, what’s left—Cleveland?

Previously in Slate: