Google bets on suburbs for new campus

Late last week, Google hit the media circuit to preview their brand new mega-campus. 

Google Inc. is preparing to break ground on a 42-acre campus called
Bayview that promises to elevate the pampering of its hard-driving,
type-A workers to a whole new level.

This marks the first time Google has had the opportunity to build its
own campus from scratch rather than hollowing out the shells of
buildings once occupied by a tech giant of another era, Silicon
Graphics. The new campus is on the grounds of NASA’s Ames Research Center, which is next to the Googleplex.
LA Times

Like Apple (building a massive “moon-base”), Google has decided that their new campus will be just as suburban as their existing “Googleplex”.

It’s an interesting decision because it directly conflicts with two of their stated goal; having a green campus, and encouraging “collisions”. 

Compare the Google plan with that of campus being built by Zappos is moving all their employees into renovated buildings in Downtown Las Vegas (no, not the strip, the REAL downtown).

Both technology companies place a high premium on workers interaction. You see, even the world’s biggest internet companies has no interest in having employees telecommute because it robs them of critical face-to-face time you’d find around the office – or around a city. That is, the telecommuting future, which has been just around the corner since the 1980’s will never actually arrive.

Radcliff said that the bent rectangles seen in the the render encourage a
“casual collision of the work force,” which would help “create
opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others
right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?'”
The Verge

I found the use of the word collision interesting, as apparently its the big buzz phrase in the industry. Compare with Zappos which elaborates on the very same concept:

His message was simple but packed full of inspiration: transform
downtown Las Vegas into the “most community-focused large city in the
world.” Tony highlighted the current efforts to bring technology,
education, and small business development together in a way that creates
“collisions, community and co-learning.”
Zappos Blog

Zappos also uses a different phrase to mean the same thing

And if they could live nearby, why not create an urban community aligned
with the culture of Zappos, which encourages the kind of “serendipitous
interactions” that happen in offices without walls?
NY Times

There’s one big difference though. By isolating their campus in the suburbs, those collisions at Google will really only happen among fellow employees. That may not be the best idea, as innovation grows by combining new ideas and points of view. It’s one of the reasons after all, that all these technology companies locate close to one another in the Bay Area, instead of spreading out to locations with cheaper rents, shorter commutes, and perhaps just as many amenities (say Boston, or Philadelphia). The exchange of ideas that happen in hallways, on the sidewalk, and in local bars actually benefits all the companies.

Google apparently is content to limit those collisions to peers. Zappos sees it differently:

“We wanted the new campus to benefit from interaction with downtown, and
downtown to benefit from interaction with Zappos.” The only hitch was
that it would require transforming the derelict core of a major city.

 You see Zappos has decided to build their major campus in the very center of Las Vegas. Their employees won’t just be meeting in stairwells and open floor plans, but also on the street, and in the neighborhood. In fact, Zappos will require their employees to go outside

“We’re doing a lot of creative things to move employees between the
floors,” said Patrick Olson, campus development manager for Zappos.  They’re even going as far as closing off the sky bridge entrance from
the parking garage, so all employees enter through the same area.

Google is not alone in sticking to the suburbs. Facebook is also experiencing a massive campus expansion, after they relocated to an area isolated from civilization by a freeway.

Facebook realized that their high-value employees don’t exactly want to be stuck in an office building all day, with the corporate cafeteria as their only option. Because they bet big on their location, they’re now trying to retrofit it with a fake town.

Now the ambitious young entrepreneur is building another kind of community, this one out of bricks and mortar. Construction
is booming along a bustling stretch that cuts through the center of
Facebook Inc.’s campus in Silicon Valley, where staffers stroll or ride
bikes and RipStiks between buildings.

Here the social networking giant is designing its own Main Street,
putting in storefronts that will cater only to Facebook employees,
whether they’re in the mood for a straight-razor shave or nigiri rolls. Call it Zucker Burg.

the days of Henry Ford and George Pullman, when industrialists built
towns surrounding manufacturing operations, Facebook is bringing shops
onto its sprawling private campus on the outskirts of Menlo Park where
there are few commercial establishments other than fast-food joints.
LA Times blog

It sounds like Facebook moved into their big new suburban campus and then realized they’d made a mistake. It was impossible to walk anywhere, and the closest food options were low-value fast food outlets that required a car to access. With competition for labor so high in the industry, it’s imperative that they keep their employees happy.

It will be interesting to see if Google has to resort to the same concept, building a fake town, to please their engineers that may get tired of the same isolated community day in and day out. While Google has many cafe concepts and the like, you can’t beat (or emulate) the unique tastes of a hole-in-the-wall downtown that’s been family run for decades.

Zappos of course, doesn’t have to build a fake town. They also don’t have to worry about their employees not being able to bounce of ideas with the public. In referring to a company owned bar,

“There will be a clean separation, but yeah we encourage our
employees to go grab a drink after work, just right around the corner in
the same complex,” Olson said.  The speakeasy-style lounge will be open to the public as well.

There’s another big difference between the approach Google is taking with that of Zappos.

Like all hip companies, Google is proud to talk about how green their new buildings will be.  Green roofs, hidden parking, natural lighting, LEED certification etc…

But at the end of the day, it’s all brand new construction. Meanwhile, in Vegas, all the buildings were abandoned and will be reused – the 40 year old empty City Hall, the 60 year old library, and the abandoned city jail. Generally, one finds that reusing what already exists is greener than building from scratch and slapping on a LEED placard.

Of course, another big environmental consideration is transportation.

Silicon Valley is infamous for its gridlock and auto dependency. In fact, the transit options are so poor that the major tech companies run very large shuttle bus systems to transport their car-free employees from downtown San Francisco to the suburbs.

You can find a useful map here.

One of the perks of locating downtown, even in sprawled out Vegas, is that a wealth of transportation options are available.

The Zappos campus will have plenty of bike parking and is
adjacent to the terminals of the various Vegas BRT lines.  It’s also close to the former Amtrak station, which may be re-purposed for HSR to Los Angeles. I don’t know how many employees at Google bike to work, but the way the roads are designed around their headquarters, I’d wager not to many. At least Vegas has a grid, which gives bike commuters options.

Finally, there’s the social-good aspect. Zappos is using their project as a way to take a blighted downtown, and reinvent it. It sounds like it’s working.

Most tourists never see downtown Las Vegas. There are a
few blocks of mostly run-down casinos, cavernous gift stores and the
enormous, glittering LED display overhead called, with hopefulness, the
Fremont Street Experience. Less than two miles to the north, there’s the
so-called homeless corridor, a patchwork of soup kitchens and
air-conditioned shelters that protect the area’s thousands of homeless
from life-threatening 115-degree afternoons during the summer. And this
is within a greater metro area that has dominated the nation’s
unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy lists for much of the last four
years. Everyone knows at least one person who has left town for
Houston, Dallas or Atlanta. 
Nevertheless, the Downtown Project is hoping to draw 10,000 “upwardly
mobile, innovative professionals” to the area in the next five years.
And according to Hsieh, he and his team receive requests for seed money
from dozens of people every week. In return, the Downtown Project asks
not just for a stake in the companies but also for these entrepreneurs
to live and work in downtown Las Vegas. (They’re also expected to give
back to the community and hand over contacts for future recruits.) In
expectation of all these newcomers, the project has already set up at
least 30 real estate companies, bought more than 15 buildings and broken
ground on 16 construction projects.
NY Times

Mountain View, of course, isn’t exactly hard up for cash. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense for big companies to pick up, move to a blighted center, rejuvenate it, and then rinse and repeat, but it’s nice to see one company using the opportunity (needing more space) for social good. Am I saying that Google should have moved to downtown Stockton? No, but one can imagine the amazing transformation that would happen in a blink of the eye if that had been the case. Even the nearby center of San Jose, with the light rail, the caltrain station and the tight grid can use investment.

I don’t think Facebook, Google or Zappos will live or die based on the choices made on locating their campus, but it will be interesting to see if different choices are made in five years. Today, it’s just a little disappointing to see Google doubling down on Mountain View instead of moving to downtown San Jose or San Francisco.

5 Replies to “Google bets on suburbs for new campus”

  1. In Google's case, the Peninsula area is going to be forced to get denser and denser and denser and will probably eventually become properly urban, just due to the sheer number of companies clustering and adding more employees. Google is behind the curve rather than ahead of it, however, which is genuinely dumb. And the area is going to end up with the layout from hell, which will make building the necessary public transport as expensive as building the Underground in central London.

    1. One problem is incredibly difficult to correct: the street network. Doesnt matter how dense a campus becomes, the only way in and out is via high speed arterials connecting to a freeway.

    2. Most of the Silicon Valley officescape is grayfield, which a street grid easier to develop than one might otherwise expect. As well, the high-speed arterials and freeways can be retrofit with BRT of various classes, while VTA certainly has coverage (though awful, awful ridership).

      The key is to think holistically about the city rather than a Station Area Plan or something. Not everywhere in San Francisco is near BART or Muni Metro, but that doesn't hinder its tight urban fabric. Google could view its current campus as a city in itself and create its own mixed-use development/office space. They could move to Lawrence Caltrain and buy up the whole district north of the tracks and do the same thing. Or, they could redevelop pockets around VTA stops and use it as an inter-office shuttle for those who don't want to bike. Target it so the main HQ is at Tasman or Great America or something.

      In other words, while Mountain View and Santa Clara County don't have run-down downtowns, they DO have vast fields of underdeveloped acreage currently used as parking, much of which is very near transit with plenty spare capacity. Google ought to build a proper downtown core around the existing infrastructure, rather than sprawl out into greenfield.

    3. Its a fair point that since so much of the land if parking or low-value buildings, developing a grid can be done. However, none of the campus projects Ive seen have suggested doing so. They all rely on the same model with a giant parcel off a major road with internal roads simply directed at parking spaces

  2. The Google people are fools! They defend the sprawling growth vigorously. All those young people want to be in downtown and in urban setting, not in suburbs. Downtown SJ and or SF can use all the growth to further revitalize themselves and relieve traffic and congestions on the valley streets.

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