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Big City Blues

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Christopher Gardner

Driven Away: Some say the valley's popularity is destroying its quality of life.

The '90s have been boom time for Silicon Valley business, but success has meant clogged freeways and outrageous housing prices for most valley residents

By Michael Learmonth

IN THE END, it was the Montague Expressway that sent Carol Cassara packing. She had put in her 12 years in Silicon Valley and decided, in stagnant traffic on her morning commute to Milpitas, that she had finally had enough.

"I could feel my blood pressure rising," she says, remembering one morning when the 10-mile drive from her home in San Jose took 45 minutes. "I looked around and realized all I did was work."

A year later she skipped town and moved to Tampa, Fla., where $200,000 buys a really nice house and her commute is exactly six glorious minutes along the azure Gulf Coast.

Stories like Cassara's have become as much a part of Silicon Valley lore as the high-tech startup or the young Ferrari-driving multimillionaire. Fed up with the two problem children of Silicon Valley prosperity--traffic jams and unaffordable housing--Cassara chose to jump ship.

Cassara moved to Silicon Valley to take an executive job in 1984. "I was caught up in the excitement and the environment," she says. Ultimately, she landed a job in corporate communications at Maxtor, a hard-disk company.

Her job was exciting and rewarding, and like many citizens of Silicon Valley, she immersed herself in it. But she says her workaholism was motivated more by the staggering amount of money she felt she had to earn to live comfortably here. She believes the house she owns now in Tampa would cost about $600,000 in San Jose.

"Look at the trap you're in working in Silicon Valley," Cassara explains. "You have to make six figures just to live like a normal middle-class person."

She considered looking for cheaper housing farther away, but the tradeoff was too great.

"Living in Morgan Hill or Gilroy, you have to drive an hour to get to work," she says. "You're not spending that time at work or with family. It's wasted time."

Virtually every round of economic expansion in Silicon Valley brings with it a worsening of exorbitant housing costs and heinous traffic jams. As Cassara's story demonstrates, the two plagues are deeply intertwined. As housing becomes more scarce, it becomes more expensive, forcing Silicon Valley workers to commute from farther away, and in turn, highways become more crowded.

The engine driving the traffic problems--housing scarcity--will continue to get worse, according to Money magazine, which predicts a 10 percent rise in housing costs next year after double-digit increases this year and last. According to Joint Venture, a Silicon Valley think tank, vehicle delays squander 13,000 hours each workday, and the numbers are increasing. So, as sure as the disgruntled letters flow into Gary Richards' "Roadshow" column in the Mercury News, frustrations will continue to rise.

Park and Cry

THE PROBLEM, says Henry Lowood, curator of the Silicon Valley book collection at Stanford University, is as old as Silicon Valley itself. He traces these "quality of life" issues back to the very dawn of the electronics industry, when the concern was that the freeway system could not handle the economic growth analysts were predicting.

"Discussion about quality of life was already on people's minds in the 1950s when Stanford Research Institute was developed," he says.

Annalee Saxenian, a professor in UC-Berkeley's department of city and regional planning, predicted in 1980 that housing prices and sluggish freeways would hobble the area's growth.

But Saxenian has spent her career writing books about Silicon Valley's continuing success. All of the naysayers--those who predicted that Silicon Valley's infrastructure deficiencies would ultimately choke the valley--have consistently been wrong.

In fact, some planning experts argue that part of Silicon Valley's problem is that the traffic and housing crises simply haven't gotten bad enough.

Early Silicon Valley planners underestimated the sacrifices commuters would be willing to make to work here, according to Lenny Siegel, director of the Pacific Research Institute.

"One thing that is shown by commute patterns is that people are willing to commute almost any distance to have a decent home," Siegel says.

Thus, the explosion of Silicon Valley's bedroom communities, such as Concord, Pleasanton and Gilroy, and the congestion on Interstate 280 and Highways 85 and 101.

Gary Schoennauer, former San Jose planning director, believes traffic will have to get a lot worse before commuter behavior changes.

"We could solve the traffic problem tonight if people would use public transit," Schoennauer says. "We planners who have pushed transit get resisted by the public because in some ways, I would argue, it's not bad enough."

Ironically, Schoennauer says that from a planning perspective, Silicon Valley commuters still have tremendous incentives to stay in their cars.

"How many people pay for parking in Santa Clara County?" he asks. "Everyone has a free parking space when they go to work and shopping. There is a price you pay for that."

The universality of free parking in Silicon Valley is unusual for an area of its size and density. If there were free parking in San Francisco, surely more people would drive there and fewer would use BART, he says. "If people could drive into Manhattan and not have to pay to park, there would be more people trying to do that, as crazy as it sounds.

"I chuckle at the drivers coming from Atherton to high-tech jobs in San Jose who say they used to drive 65 and now they're down to 45," Schoennauer says.

Plagued With Success

DURING THE RECESSION of the late '80s and early '90s, some who predicted Silicon Valley's fall thought they were having the last laugh, but the area was reborn in 1994 as Internet Valley.

But the reality that has emerged is not at all comforting to those spending hours on freeways and more than 50 percent of their take-home on housing. While the dwindling quality of life probably won't kill Silicon Valley, experts say the traffic headaches and cost of housing are just going to get worse--until the next recession.

"The one thing that could save our quality of life would be an economic downturn," Siegel says. A recession, he argues, would be great for the people who manage to keep their jobs and live locally--as macabre as that sounds.

"If 10 percent of the people lose their jobs, then all of a sudden there's new capacity," Siegel says. In 1990 the valley lost 50,000 defense-related jobs, which took pressure off the housing market. During that recession, housing prices actually dropped--an unprecedented event in Silicon Valley. Also an event unlikely to occur again, he admits.

"It would have to be a global depression to have an effect because Silicon Valley is so hot," Siegel says.

In the beginning, Siegel says, Silicon Valley's vast quality-of-life advantages helped attract top talent. A strong education system; proximity to great universities; and a safe, suburban setting with cultural and outdoor recreational opportunities top the list.

"Historically, what Silicon Valley has offered is largely quality of life," Siegel says. But will Silicon Valley be able to maintain this historic advantage if the housing shortage gets worse?

"This used to be the place where you could attract top pros from Cincinnati or China," Siegel says. "It seems like it will be harder to bring people in on the assumption that you will live in Manteca and work here."

The future of housing in Silicon Valley is higher-density units located near mass transit such as light rail, according to Schoennauer.

"We need to create the opportunity for people to live five to 10 miles from work," Siegel says, "if we're going to expect a continued level of expansion."

Already, the valley is undergoing a mini-Manhattanization in commercial construction as land becomes increasingly scarce and expensive. The Adobe towers in San Jose are the most striking examples of that. "Silicon Valley is not going to look like Manhattan," Schoennauer says, "but we are going to see higher density; where two stories were the norm, four, five and six are more typical today."

To get a proper perspective on Silicon Valley's problems, Schoennauer likes to recall a conference of big-city mayors held in the mid-1970s. Norm Mineta was mayor then, and Schoennauer was a city staffer. As part of the conference, the mayors of New York, Detroit, Baltimore and Boston boarded a bus to tour a city the locals felt had been scarred by urban renewal.

Schoennauer remembers that Mayor John Lindsay left New York in the midst of a garbage strike. He looked across downtown San Jose's desert of parking lots with eyes accustomed to the South Bronx and conveyed a sentiment shared by many of the other mayors: "Problems? What problems?"

If they were invited back 20 years later to look at Silicon Valley's car-choked freeways and cruel housing market in 1998, Schoennauer believes the big-city mayors' reactions would be the same. What mayor wouldn't trade a little traffic for 2.7 percent unemployment, the lowest crime rate of any metropolitan area of its size and eight straight months of sunshine?

Schoennauer says they would probably see it as "a little tarnish on paradise" and welcome San Jose to the Big Time.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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