Opinion: Google Shows SJ Needs a Stronger Development Process

This Wednesday, April 28, the San Jose Planning Commission will hear a presentation on Google’s Downtown West project and make a recommendation to the City Council for its own hearing in May.

I serve on the planning commission, but as a former Google Cloud engineer, I’ll be recusing myself from the discussion to avoid a potential conflict of interest. So instead, I’m sharing my thoughts here on how the city could have handled the process better, and how the development agreement frames how San Jose should approach commercial developments in the future.

The project, which would create a new, mixed-use Google campus in the Diridon Station area, has had a long history. Announced in June 2017, it includes land that the city of San Jose acquired after the 2008 recession to build a baseball stadium for a failed attempt to lure the A’s from Oakland. The Downtown West project has been contentious from day-one because of concerns about how it will integrate with nearby neighborhoods and downtown, the risk of displacement of residents and small businesses and the lack of transparency in the negotiations between the city and Google.

Transparency was particularly important for Downtown West both because of its size—the project includes at least 20,000 jobs and at least 4,000 apartments—and because Google had to negotiate the purchase of 21 acres of public land from the city. But San Jose officials effectively precluded the possibility of broad transparency by signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with Google.

I understand that NDAs are part of how tech companies do business—as an employee I’ve signed many myself—but they should remain in the private sector where they belong. When you do business with the public, you should do business in public. San Jose shouldn’t allow council members and city employees to sign NDAs; they violate the spirit of open government and make it difficult, if not impossible, for the city to be transparent and accountable.

The development agreement that was unveiled earlier this month includes a $200 million community benefits package that’s been lauded, not just by city leaders and the business community, but also the South Bay Labor Council and the Diridon Area Neighborhood Group (a coalition of residents who live near the project).

But with only weeks until final approval, we still have only a vague idea of how the $150 million earmarked for a community-driven fund will be governed. Had this process been more open and transparent, instead of a years-long closed-door negotiation, these details could have been scrutinized and addressed much earlier in the process.

The biggest takeaway from the development agreement is that it dispels the idea that asking Google for significant community benefits would jeopardize the project. Today’s reality is a far cry from former Councilmember Johnny Khamis’ now-hollow warning that “[i]f we keep forcing them to pay for housing and parks, they will go to Houston or Austin.”

If approved, construction on Downtown West will likely not be completed until the 2030s. A  company as large as Google doesn’t make an investment with that long of a timeline without a strong reason. And while I’m not apprised of Google’s internal deliberations, I can tell you confidently why Google is betting big on San Jose: because San Jose is a great place to do business.

It’s not unreasonable to ask Google and other big businesses to invest in the community. Businesses can only sustain themselves in the long term when the communities they operate in remain healthy and vibrant. In effect, asking big businesses to invest in the community’s long term success is asking them to invest in their own long term success. The community benefits package in this project shouldn’t be considered unusual; it should be the standard.

Justin Lardinois is a candidate for San Jose City Council District 1, which encompasses West San Jose. He currently serves on the San Jose Planning Commission. Opinions expressed are his own. Opinions are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

4 Comments

  1. Google bails, or they tap the life out of entire industries by finding loopholes in the social contract. Listen, these smarty pants google cloud engineers live in an insulated bubble of free sushi lunches and extended volleyball afternoons and have only utter contempt for common people. The only reason they will stick around is if they can bleed you dryer. They treat vendors like garbage and drop product lines on a dime, they make promises to cities and break them, they make promises to customers then EOL products and services.

    You are a fool to do business with google, you shall see.

  2. “It’s not unreasonable to ask Google and other big businesses to invest in the community.”

    Their function is to conduct business and make profits by providing goods or services, no differently than the small businesses you don’t want to hold up to force them to spend or give you money (not “invest” [sic]).

    San Jose interests are putting great hopes on landing Google in the Diridon Station Area to make the area a much more substantial place just west of the real downtown, with no doubt sweetheart details for Google that aren’t released to the public in addition to likely interests that may include real-estate-related that “key players” including some politicians have. They may have them whether the cutesy illustrations Google and its parties provide, or reality is different, as with, e.g., Pruitt-Igoe. (Speaking of which, most want more jobs for San Jose, not more housing.) While the “key players” are ambitious, Google rides the rubes.

  3. “The project, which would create a new, mixed-use Google campus in the Diridon Station area, has had a long history. Announced in June 2017, it includes land that the city of San Jose acquired after the 2008 recession to build a baseball stadium for a failed attempt to lure the A’s from Oakland.”

    The aforementioned statement is only partially correct.

    San Jose through the accursed and now defunct Redevelopment Agency (RDA) bought the lands under the pretense for “Housing projects.”

    These “land purchases” were for a Municipal Stadium (Baseball) but, to proceed under the guise of a Municipal Stadium would require a “Vote” of authorization to do so by the San Jose “Voters” per the San Jose City Charter.

    Fearing a rejection by the “Voters” referenced by the attempt for a “Municipal Stadium” under Mayor Hammer’s term in Office, Measure G; which would have created a Municipal Stadium for Baseball at Zanker Road and Route 237 was defeated by the “Voters.” It’s now a County Transit Bus Maintenance facility.

    So…enter the RDA’s big and juicy lie…”We’re buying the land for housing” when in all actuality and truth, the land purchases were solely for a baseball stadium.

    But, it gets worse…under Mayor Reed’s administration, a deal was cut to have a special election, to come out of the closet so to speak, admit to the “Voters” the intent to build a Municipal Stadium but, somewhere in the mix, the owner of the Oakland A’s wanted the special election deferred. I faintly recall the deferral was due to negotiation with the other Baseball team owners to allow the A’s to move to San Jose.

    The deal was…in consideration…if San Jose deferred the special election…until authorization was given by the other Baseball team owners, to allow the A’s to move to San Jose…the owner of the A’s would help pay the costs for the “special election.”

    Remember, Mayor Reed had a fiduciary and ministerial duty to put forth the “special election.”
    Mayor Reed suspended the date for the “special election.”

    Then enter myself, at a Rules and Open Government Committee meeting, reading from a Criminal Law Hornbook, the legal definition of Bribery…into the Public’s record before Mayor Reed and the Rules crew.

    So much for the Baseball stadium and…so much for the Housing projects.

    I do not suggest, imply and or infer any wrong-doing by Mayor Reed and or the owner of the Oakland A’s.

    But, at the time, the pursuit of the baseball stadium was “complicated” by the owner of the Oakland A’s purchase of the now bankrupted San Jose Fairmont Hotel.

    What a “sweet deal” that would have been for the owner of the Oakland A’s…own a Hotel and have his baseball team just down a few blocks. Man, you could get snookered off your butt at the local bars going to and coming from the game and then crash out in a nice room at the Fairmont.

    At the time, I suggested San Jose might as well make a deal with the pimps of the High-end Call girls in Las Vegas and have them flown in for game nights. Board limousines at the airport for a short ride to the Fairmont and everyone so concerned would be really happy.

    Although my idea was popular with many people, it never was seriously pursued.

    Now what does San Jose have?

    A bankrupted Fairmont Hotel, No Downtown Baseball, No High-end Call girls (that I know of) and Google throwing its’ massive political weight around.

    I almost forgot.

    San Jose’s Homeless population will continue to grow unabated due to the entitlements predicated upon unending social services.

    In retrospect, San Jose would be better-off if I was calling the shots.

    As to the candidate for D1…sit down…you don’t know San Jose’s History…You’re not ready for the Big league.

    San Jose needs to find a way to keep Chappie…There is no substitute for class.

    David S. Wall

  4. Who really cares? The google project isn’t going to happen. No one in tech needs to work in San Jose or the Bay Area anymore.