It seems as if the whole of Silicon Valley is beset by one giant case of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” First Apple announced a massive new expansion to its Cupertino headquarters. Then Facebook bought up 56 acres for growth in Menlo Park, and now it’s Google’s turn.
Google’s plans have rekindled old tensions between an industry that is built on growth and a region that doesn’t want to change.
It’s tempting to look at Apple, Facebook, and Google and say that Silicon Valley would be nowhere without them, but that’s not necessarily the case. First the defense industry moved in, then the semiconductor manufacturers in the 1980s, then the dot-com bubble, and now the mobile internet.
“Silicon Graphics has come and gone, Sun Microsystems has come and gone, and companies stepped in to fill their place,” says Mountain View City Councilman Michael Kasperzak. Mountain View is headquarters to some 20,000 Google employees.
Unlike, say, Ford Motor Company a generation ago, companies like Google aren’t necessarily as enmeshed in the local economy. “Google doesn’t do anything to generate sales tax, we don’t tax the internet, we don’t tax searches, we don’t tax ad revenue,” Kasperzak says.
He notes there are plenty of other benefits that Google does provide, such as leasing city land and providing funds for local schools.
But, unlike previous eras, when a company with the size and clout of Facebook or Google could essentially own a town the size of Mountain View, population 80,000, that is not the case in 2015.
“To call the Silicon Valley communities new ‘company towns’ may be a bit of an overstatement,” says Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly in Pomona.
“As much as the high-tech companies might want that level of control, they don’t have that level of control or influence,” says Woo, “and even some of their own employees as voters, wouldn’t necessarily vote to support what might be in the best interest of the companies.”
Woo says the Googles and Apples of the world have largely resisted the urge to throw their weight around in local politics. And to its credit, he notes that Google is even talking about ways it might create new affordable housing for its employees.
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