Features & Columns
How Google is Changing
Fifty years ago, Santa Cruz had a solid reputation as a conservative stronghold. Business was booming and development was rapidly increasing along the coastal shore. But that started to change in 1965, when the University of California founded a new campus. Though only 650 students attended U.C. Santa Cruz in its first year, the school provided a base for liberal professors and college kids who'd spend their days in book and record stores.
Just 14 years later, Mike Rotkin, a UCSC professor and self-described "socialist-feminist," ran for City Council as a protest candidate simply to show that there was a lefty block of voters. Rotkin was stunned when he learned that he'd secured the most votes of 19 candidates for the seven-member body.
At first, Rotkin tells Metro, "we could make a motion, but we couldn't get it passed." Liberals gradually built a majority over the course of the '80s, and by the next decade, Rotkin says, "anybody who ran as a Republican was dead on arrival." Rotkin eventually served five one-year stints as mayor before retiring from politics in 2010.
Despite its influence on Santa Cruz culture and politics, the university had an occasionally strained relationship with the town. A water shortage led to legal wrangling. Expansion impacted traffic and housing costs and created strife over the use of public resources for services like parks and police.
A similar makeover is taking place in a town 35 miles to the north, but the impacts are still yet to play out. The rapid growth of tech giant Google in Mountain View has created thousands of jobs, kept housing prices strong and bolstered tax collections. But behind the economic boon lie growing environmental concerns, traffic jams and an unexpected byproduct: the potential political and cultural reshaping of an entire community.
With work set to begin on a massive project to house its jet fleet at San Jose's Mineta International Airport and rumors swirling about a potential move to the Mission in San Francisco, Google has widened what was already an enormous footprint by reportedly closing deals on at least $325 million worth of real estate in Mountain View and Palo Alto in the second half of 2013 alone.
Amid that growth, the Mountain View City Council in December rejected a Google proposal to construct a shuttle-, bicycle- and pedestrian-only bridge. The bridge, if built, would have connected Moffett Field to the North Bayshore neighborhood, where the company wants to supplement its existing Googleplex with space for another 17,500 workers. But the plan was blocked, for now, with opponents, like Mountain View City Councilmember Margaret Abe-Koga, arguing that it would ruin the area's character and threaten wildlife.
"Companies locating here means more employees coming into town," Abe-Koga says. "We're a relatively small city in terms of square miles. We don't have a lot of land left. So, that's been a challenge: How do we make room for more growth while trying to maintain our character?"
A Subtler Shift
It's not clear exactly how many Googlers already work and live in Mountain View. Roughly a third of the company's growing worldwide workforce of 45,000 is based at the Mountain View campus, and as many as 5,000 are believed to live in town. Another 5,000 Mountain View employees take one of 112 shuttle buses to and from work each day, the company says. Google declined to provide a precise breakdown of its workforce by location and would not answer Metro's questions about employee age, gender and racial demographics. The company also declined to speak on the record or provide any official comment for this story.
Despite its size, Google has for the most part maintained a low profile in city affairs, according to Kevin Duggan, who served as city manager from 1990 to 2011 and encouraged a young Sergey Brin and Larry Page to grow their burgeoning business in Mountain View. "Maybe that will change over time," Duggan says, "but I think they've assimilated into the community like many other folks, gradually, and I haven't seen any sea changes."
That doesn't mean it's not coming. Roughly 15,000 workers and 5,000 residents from a single company is meaningful in Mountain View, which had an estimated population of 76,621 as of July 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Those differences might mean it will take 20 or 25 years instead of 10 or 15 to feel Google's impact on politics, or it could mean the changes will be subtler than the massive shift that took place in Santa Cruz. Colleges tend to attract very young and very progressive people, Rotkin says, and UCSC's early no-grades policy meant an especially liberal cohort. Googlers are considered to be younger, better educated and more affluent than average, but it's not clear if they'll shift the civic culture as dramatically and it remains to be seen if tech workers will be as politically active as students and career academics.
Whenever and whatever changes do come, Rotkin says, "that's going to affect things that have nothing to do with Google's interests."
Work in Progress
Mountain View's political makeover appears to have started in 2012, with the election of 30-year-old tech worker Chris Clark, who became mayor last month. Clark was among those in favor of moving forward with a study of Google's proposed bridge to North Bayshore, illustrating how young, technology-friendly city leaders might be more sympathetic to Google in coming years—even if they don't work for the company.
Abe-Koga, one of Clark's longest-tenured colleagues on the council, says she's seen dramatic changes—both good and bad— in her town since she moved to Mountain View 15 years ago and was elected to office in 2006.
"I get a lot of times people say, 'You're so lucky, Margaret. You have Google and they're probably willing to pay for whatever improvements you need,'" she says. "It's not that easy. It doesn't always happen that way. And there are a lot of challenges it's brought us. So, it's a mixed bag."
Abe-Koga, who will term out of office at the end of this year, is part of the council bloc that's more skeptical of Google's outsized role in Mountain View, and among those who voted down the bridge plan. Still, she recognizes that Google's presence helped keep the city afloat when the recession and housing crisis hit, unlike some other California cities.
"It's a work in progress," Abe-Koga says. "I'm reminded that Google is a relatively young company—15 or 16 years old, so they're in the teenage years. I would have to say that some of the longer-established companies have a better sense of how to live and work in the community and be good corporate citizens. Google is finding their way. I think they're trying, and I appreciate that they are. They've been very open and receptive, but a lot of it comes from experience, and that takes time."