How Google won over some of its biggest critics to build a megacampus in San Jose

in the community to not just explain the process but invite them into it.
Organizers said it’s a model other tech companies may adopt in the future.
Google’s “Downtown West” proposal is Google’s fist mix-used campus, comprising of 80 sprawling acres in downtown San Jose.
Google’s “Downtown West” proposal is Google’s fist mix-used campus, comprising of 80 sprawling acres in downtown San Jose.
Sitelab Urban Studio
Google’s path to its massive tech campus planning in San Jose began with activists chaining themselves to chairs inside City Hall over the city’s decision to sell public land to the tech giant. It ended with some of its biggest opponents signing its praises.

Last month, the San Jose City Council approved Google’s plan for a mixed-use megacampus that spans 80 acres and 7.3 million square feet of office space in the heart of California’s third-largest city. To win over critics, Google designated more than half of its campus to public use and offered up a $200 million community benefits package that includes displacement funds, job placement training, and power for community leaders to influence how it’s spent.

“It’s certainly a much different process in the end versus what we saw at the beginning with regards to community and labor movement,” said Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy for San Jose-based community coalition Working Partnerships USA.

“It was a reminder of how organizing works and matters,” said nonprofit Silicon Valley Rising director Maria Noel Fernandez. “Now, it really does feel like a partnership.”

The successful partnership comes as tech giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon seek to expand their real estate footprint around the country while residents complain of displacement. It comes two years after Amazon famously abandoned plans to build a campus in New York after communities opposed it. It also comes as labor groups and employees are growing more vocal about the influence big tech companies exercise. Some local organizers said their success with Google is paving a path for future organizing with tech.

But it took four years to get there.

Loud opposition and a rocky start
Google had a long history of dealing with city government and the community near its headquarters in Mountain View, 10 miles up the road from San Jose. But the company had no history of investments in San Jose itself, even though many of its workers live there.

The process started off on the wrong foot, community members said.

It began when the campus plan appeared cloaked in secrecy at a time just as the conversation around tech power and antitrust was beginning to gain traction in the broader world. To the local community, it appeared that Google and the city were secretly plotting to give the company public land without much discussion with the community.

In 2017, the public found out that the city of San Jose had entered exclusive talks with Google, which intended to buy all the parcels in a roughly 240-acre area. In 2018, local media reports uncovered non-disclosure agreements between public officials and Google. Buchanan’s organization Working Partnerships USA sued the city, alleging it was conducting backroom deals with the tech giant.

“One of our initial concerns was with the NDAs,” Fernandez said.

“The NDA was just such a bad look for the project,” agreed Bob Staedler, who is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. “So, it just started off badly.”

Another big concern was displacement, which the city had seen as tech employees from Apple, Google and others moved in over the years. Within one week of the news breaking that Google was coming to town and taking most of downtown with it, home prices in a three-mile radius of the site jumped 7%, — and rose from there in the following months, experts told CNBC at the time.

Community groups protested at every Google and city event in sight. At a particularly contentious city council meeting, several protesters chained themselves to the chairs. Protesters also made scenes outside of Google’s marketing conference in San Jose, and teamed up with employees and investors for a protest outside of the company’s 2019 shareholder meeting, where picketers held signs reading “Welcome to Googleville,” and “Hey Google, Don’t evict me.”

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