Issue 519 to

The Corporate Campus Embraces Urbanization

Google has proposed a new vision for retrofitting its Mountain View campus as a dense and walkable urban place.

Urbanist Article

What happened: Google’s proposed new vision for retrofitting its Mountain View campus as a dense and walkable urban place was embraced by the City of Mountain View in its updated general plan (though the city balked at Google’s request to include housing).

What it means: Increasingly, we are seeing expressions of the urban future of work through specific proposals by companies interested in retrofitting the suburban corporate campus rather than moving into cities. This proposal by Google, one of the region’s largest employers, is a prime example. The success of some campuses at achieving downtown-like commute patterns through things like corporate shuttles weakens the conventional critique that the suburban workplace is hopelessly auto-oriented. But these cases are the exception, and a broader transformation will require addressing design and land use, which several new proposals begin to do. Ultimately, the successful implementation of more urban corporate campuses hinges on support from and collaboration with the many local governments that have the ultimate land use decision power.
The City of Mountain View adopted a new citywide general plan that tripled the amount of allowable office development in the North Bayshore area where Google is located. Despite the increase in density, the new general plan expressly rejects housing as an allowable use in the area. Google proposed a dramatic urbanization of its Mountain View campus, with small, walkable blocks, greatly increased densities and multistory mixed-use buildings that also included some housing. At press time, we learned that the Google campus redesign is now on hold for the next year until the company and the city work through the transportation impacts of adding so many additional commuters to the North Bayshore area. Hopefully, this will be just a temporary setback in a long-term reshaping of a suburban landscape. We believe that the city’s approval of Google’s plan still bodes well for the urban future of work and points to larger trends in the region:

Companies want to feel urban but not necessarily be urban.

In spite of the tech boom in San Francisco and New York City, many Silicon Valley employers will continue to locate outside of traditional urban centers. Many tech firms rely on a campus setting to create “a world apart” to enhance the corporate culture and provide security. But some of these companies — like Google — are now leading efforts to urbanize Silicon Valley and to shift away from the traditional auto-oriented suburban model.
The new Mountain View general plan permits greater density, allowing Google and adjacent employers to triple the number of workers in the North Bayshore area from 17,000 to 48,000 (more than double the number of jobs in downtown San Jose). This can happen due to “floor area ratios” increasing from 0.3 to 1.0 (which allows a tripling of the total building size), coupled with the ongoing decline in square feet per worker.
More jobs alone are not sufficient for creating urbanism in suburbia. Google also proposed new retail, community facilities, pedestrian paths, public open spaces and thousands of housing units adjacent to its office buildings. But the City of Mountain View declined to approve housing as an allowable use in the North Bayshore area, dealing a blow to the idea of a more mixeduse urban campus environment.
This campus retrofit proposal helps Google further differentiate its corporate culture and attract the kind of younger workers who would otherwise be unwilling to work in what they perceive to be an isolated suburban area. Competition for talent is high, and the workforce is increasingly looking for urban amenities. Given Google’s worldwide reputation and influence, this urbanizing shift may be a harbinger of things to come among other major employers.

Good design can create a more urban tech campus.

The conventional suburban campus typology — low-slung tilt-up buildings set behind a sea of surface parking — is already in decline. High land values are yielding multistory buildings and structured parking. Google (as well as Facebook and others) is creating mixed urban settings purposefully, to promote creative inspiration, spontaneous interaction and efficient communication.
Google’s proposal like a handful of spec proposals such as Lowe Enterprises’ n1 campus adjacent to a light rail stop on North First Street in San Jose, breaks down large campuses into smaller blocks, with higher buildings placed closer together and oriented toward streets and open spaces. Active uses — from company cafeterias to restaurants, from co-working facilities to gyms, are meant to bring outdoor spaces to life and foster interaction. Connections to transit (not the parking lot) and circulation by bike and foot are organizing principles, not afterthoughts, and while parking is generally abundant compared to downtown settings, it is in well-placed structured garages. Proposals like these are still the exception to the rule, but as the current tech boom plays out, competition for creative young talent may mean retrofitting the suburbs to compete with the urban amenities that talent desires.

The corporate campus can arrive at commute patterns that rival transit-oriented central business districts.

Though half of Google’s employees in Mountain View drive alone to campus each day, this constitutes a lower share of solo drivers than nearly all other job centers in the Bay Area (even downtown Oakland). This relatively low rate of driving for a suburban area is achieved in part because about 90 percent of Google employees who live in San Francisco ride the shuttle. But with proposed new growth comes more demand for trips to and from this area. Significantly reducing new auto traffic will require further increasing the use of corporate shuttles and other transportation demand-management measures, resisting efforts to increase roadway capacity and allowing local housing. Based on one scenario, the area around Google could drop dramatically to 27 percent solo driver commuters in 2030.
Ultimately, reducing solo drivers to the campus is a prerequisite for a more urban campus form. You cannot build more densely and redevelop parking lots if you still need all that land to store cars. Shifting drivers to shuttles and away from cars frees up land for other uses.

Reshaping the corporate campus requires the cooperation and support of local jurisdictions.

After decades of planners’ attempts to encourage better land use patterns, it is striking to observe that urbanization is coming from within the tech sector, driven by changes in both land (more expensive) and labor (more demanding). However, this trend can only take hold comprehensively with the cooperation of local jurisdictions and regulators. Bay Area land use decisions still emerge from a multiplicity of agencies, with a range of capacities, imperatives and priorities. Reshaping streets, mixing uses, increasing densities, changing parking requirements — these are planning decisions, and they face daunting obstacles.
In Google’s case, the City of Mountain View approved the proposal in general but balked at the most innovative element: housing. Sunnyvale recently killed dedicated transit lanes on El Camino Real, dealing a major blow to the county’s bus rapid-transit system. Elsewhere, cities in fiscal distress continue to approve mediocre, auto-dependent projects to shore up their balance sheets. Parking remains central to most development. A sea change may be developing, but choppy waters lie ahead.
Will Google’s plan influence others? Can issues of corporate security and privacy coexist with the openness of urban life, or will we see instead a constellation of private pseudocities? The corporate campus trend toward urbanization provides a ray of hope for areas that have been largely written off by urbanists, but these unknowns remain.

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s regional policy director.

Benjamin Grant is SPUR’s public realm and urban design program manager.