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].