Google and San Jose are exploring a massive new campus in the city’s downtown that could intensify gentrification and bring much-needed jobs. The campus also could spark a new approach to gentrification that better balances needs of families and corporations.
Who could say no to 20,000 new jobs and a state-of-the-art Google campus for their city?
San Jose is in the midst of answering that question – the latest frontier in an era of corporate homesteading in urban America – as Google eyes building a sprawling campus in the heart of its downtown in Silicon Valley.
The idea sounds great. One of the nation’s leading companies builds what would be one of the largest tech campuses in Silicon Valley, and a source of jobs-rich construction projects for years.
But, the reality beyond that idea is far more complex. Tens of thousands of Googlers and acres of higher-end condominiums to house them would threaten to tear the fabric of one of the most diverse cities in America, where Asian American and Latino residents make up 34 and 33 percent of the population respectively. The campus could push more lower-income families even farther outside city limits, according to community leaders, families and activists.
At the same time, it would threaten to widen the economic divide between the city’s wealthier residents and everyone else.
How? The proposed corporate campus could enflame San Jose’s raging housing market, where families already struggled to find homes as median home values soared 24 percent during the last year and now stand over $1.1 million, Zillow reported. All of those jobs and the people that come with them also could erode the city’s cultural identity and weaken public schools by reducing enrollment.
Yet, within this complex question lies an opportunity rarely found in gentrifying cities, a chance to create a new approach to corporate development. Perhaps it would not be a completely new model, but a first step toward one that better balances the needs of corporate America with those of working-class and poor families.
“These are the biggest companies in the world, and I think they set precedent for when you are that big and you are valued at that much and you are making that much money, what is your responsibility not even to the world, what is your responsibility to the people down the street?” Andrew Bigelow, a 27-year-old musician, community organizer, and San Jose native, said.
To answer that question, San Jose’s leaders must perform a delicate balancing act. The development promises needed jobs and revenue for this bedroom city – alone among the nation’s 20 largest cities with more people at night than during the day, according to Census data.
But, the city, which is already home to tech giant Adobe, needs to guard against the campus becoming a Trojan horse for lower-income families that hides higher rent and other forces that push them far from their communities. Community groups are pushing Google to hire San Jose residents first, though the types of jobs at the potential campus remain up in the air, while also creating well-paying jobs for contractors and construction workers.
“It’s an opportunity for a new model of a major tech company that wants to be part of a real city and a real place,” said Kim Walesh, deputy city manager and economic development director for San Jose. “We are in San Jose trying to collaborate, to co-create our future. People who care come to the table (not only with) issues, but to develop solutions…together that everyone can agree to.”
And this is not a problem unique to iconic Silicon Valley. Twitter’s expansion in San Francisco has pushed the region’s cost of living even higher and longtime families from the city. Drive 800 miles north, and you can see how Amazon’s growth is remaking Seattle’s skyline and neighborhoods, while the company’s self-generated race for a second headquarters raises questions about the true value of corporate homesteading around the country.
In San Jose, however, there is a chance to do things a little differently. It’s a city that tilts progressive on social issues, and bends conservative on some fiscal policies. It is also the third largest city in a state that’s a national leader on social justice issues, including raising the minimum wage and immigration rights.
There are tentative but hopeful signs in the public engagement process, which began this spring. Google has signaled a willingness, though with few details, to look at the project’s impact on the city, as its leaders talk about a holistic approach focused on community, nature, innovation and economics.
“We are committed to make this a great thing, not just for Google, but for San Jose and all of its citizens,” the company’s general counsel Kent Walker said at the annual shareholders meeting in June. “We are also exploring possibilities of working on housing initiatives and other kinds of things that could address various impacts.”
Exploring possibilities is one thing. How or if those possibilities become realities remains the pressing question for many families.
“This (project) is not a small pebble in a pond. This is a huge rock,” Salvadore “Chava” Bustamante, executive director of Latinos United for New America in San Jose, said. “This project offers a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of challenges.”
For decades, corporate America has negotiated where to build its gleaming new headquarters with cities, unions and other power brokers. Today in San Jose, new brokers are emerging, led by the grassroots Silicon Valley Rising campaign, giving low-income families a stronger voice that perhaps this time will be loud enough to be heard.
The question is how will San Jose and Google listen to families? Will they hear their solutions at public meetings held by the project’s advisory group? Will families sit on policy-shaping organizations? Will their ideas be reflected in any final development plan?
Will they listen to Daniel Gonzalez?
The Hidden Cost of Development
Daniel Gonzalez was born 33 years ago at the now-shuttered San Jose Medical Center in downtown. He went on to James Lick High School, where he met his future wife, spent a couple of years at San Jose State University, and now works in the public school system.
Over the years, the father of two watched his tight-knit family pull up stakes and leave San Jose. His parents, younger brother, aunts, uncles and cousins moved out into California’s Central Valley, as the cost of a home or rent on an apartment moved beyond their reach. Today, many of them now drive two to three hours, each way, to jobs in San Jose.
As they scattered, the bonds that sustain families weakened. When Daniel’s cousins ran into trouble – he saw two incarcerated and one deported – their family and support network was no longer down the block or the street. Instead, it was often hours away in the Central Valley.
“When things go sideways in the world you tend to feel alone and isolated. You don’t feel you have people you can lean on,” Gonzalez said. “Those are the hidden costs of this development” in San Jose.
Gonzalez sees a more visible cost in a vacant lot next to the city’s Eastridge mall.
The lot is being transformed into softball fields, Gonzalez says, even though families in nearby neighborhoods are far more likely to play soccer or basketball. It makes him wonder who those softball fields are for.
“This kind of sends a message things are being redeveloped, but for who?” Gonzalez said. “Development, that is not going to preserve any culture we have here.”
Gonzalez worries about who will preserve San Jose’s rich cultural history, including the campaigns for farmworker rights led by Cesar Chavez, who lived in San Jose, if longtime residents can no longer afford to live in the city.
“Chavez, a lot of his strikes and his marches were started in San Jose…Parents who worked with him” live here, Gonzalez said. “Who is going to tell that story? Who is going to carry on that history, that legacy?”
Andrew Bigelow is worried about telling his own story of San Jose, where he has lived his whole life, growing up on the East Side and playing football at West San Jose High School. Now he works as an organizer for Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community-focused organizing, advocacy and storytelling collective in San Jose.
After getting married last year, he realized they wouldn’t be buying a home in his hometown.
“We are never going to be able to own anything, unless we win the Lotto or my album goes platinum,” Bigelow, a past winner of the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award, said. “Even if you make $100,000 a year, I don’t think you are ballin’ out here. I think you still have roommates.”
But, Bigelow isn’t dismissing the Google campus outright. He thinks some good could come from it, if nothing else the beginning of a new view of gentrification.
“It has to start sometime, so it should start now. It should have started yesterday. It should have started when I was a kid. They need to be accountable. They need to be in touch,” Bigelow said.
Andrew Bigelow’s nuanced view of a Google campus is a sign of the potential this project holds, one that is echoed guardedly by community organizations in the region.
“The people of San Jose have said over and over that Google is more than welcome in our city, but we need protection from big tech’s local legacy of evictions, homelessness and displacement,” Maria Noel Fernandez, director of the Silicon Valley Rising campaign and deputy director of Working Partnerships USA, said.
To secure those protections, Silicon Valley Rising is pushing for a community benefits agreement, under which Google would commit to working on four core issues: fighting gentrification, displacement and homelessness; creating good-paying jobs and supporting local construction workers; committing to a new partnership with local education; helping to improve access to transit and mitigate the project’s impact on traffic; and agreeing to oversight and other mechanisms to enforce the agreement.
The coalition also wants Google to invest in affordable housing and quality job standards in local hiring.
“I don’t think Google’s responsibility is an open question honestly. Google is receiving a large (amount) of public good,” including potentially more than $10 billion of public investment in transit, valuable public land and zoning flexibility, Jeffrey Buchanan, director of policy at Working Partnerships USA, a member of Silicon Valley Rising, said.
A question-and-answer on the project provided by the city counters that the $10 billion estimate overstates investment needed to expand Diridon Station, which is expected to progress regardless of what happens with the Google campus, and that money will come from many sources.
Google stresses the city’s housing challenges and other issues highlighted by its proposed campus require work and collaboration among a range of partners, including the government, companies and other organizations.
“It is Google’s intention to have a very robust discussion, to make sure that everyone – nonprofits, residents, small business owners, educators – all have an opportunity to share their aspirations, their goals, their concerns through an open and transparent process,” Javier Gonzalez, the manager of government affairs and public policy, told The Mercury News, in April.
For now, the project holds the promise of a new way. Whether that promise is realized will be clearer by the end of the year, when the City Council is expected to receive a memorandum of understanding, an initial statement of intent of sorts, between the city and Google.
In San Jose, some longtime residents see it as an empty promise.
“We don’t have any choice in this, and it’s been sold as an opportunity…for their community. But, what (it’s going) to really do is push out the folks in the community,” said Elizabeth Gonzalez, a leader of Serve the People San Jose, which is opposed to the campus. “There are so many families who are struggling here… who don’t see a future in San Jose.”
At Silicon Valley Rising, they are focused on getting their priorities and goals into that memorandum before it’s submitted to the City Council, work that is fueled by a movement of San Jose families.
Those priorities reflect realities of living in a gentrifying city in 2018: soaring rents; cultural dilution; and fraying of bonds among families who have called a city home for generations.
The campaign is “another reminder how people are really experts in their own lives…they are feeling the crisis every single day. They know it doesn’t have to be this way,” Silicon Valley Rising’s Fernandez said.
“We have an opportunity to choose a different way for our community.”
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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