Google moves deftly with Boulder expansion, but questions remain
Bob Wells | Jan 13, 2015
How would you expect a company with Google’s brainpower and wealth to execute a game plan to massively expand its presence in Boulder? Adroitly, that’s the answer.
Thus it is that Google joined forces with credentialed commercial real estate allies (Denver-based real estate private equity fund Brickstone Partners and commercial property developers Forum Real Estate Group, also of Denver) to assemble the funds and negotiate the deals to acquire more than four acres on the southwest corner of 30th St. and Pearl St., creating what Brickstone’s Daniel Otis aptly described to BizWest as “kind of the last large contiguous development parcel in the core of Boulder.”No outlying, car-oriented oblivion for Google. Instead, an almost uncannily perfect site nestled between the Boulder Junction transit hub, the 29th Street shopping complex, massive new apartment and condo developments nearby in three directions and — not to forget — Whole Foods Markets across the street. Enlisted as the team’s Boulder-based negotiator working to acquire the disparate parcels was Terry Kruegel, a well-regarded commercial real estate specialist who first came to Boulder in 1973 to study Buddhism with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Among Google’s largest sites
The land purchases – and the more recent approval by both Planning Board and City Council of what is expected to grow by 2017 into a three-building, 330,000-square-foot office complex – proceeded smoothly. The site would be, according to Daily Camera business reporter Alicia Wallace, “one of the tech giant’s largest in the United States.”
Behind the scenes and largely unreported is some effort to identify or quantify the economic impact – on real estate values, retail commerce, and other dimensions. One friend e-mailed me to “go easy” on reporting about Google coming to Boulder, adding: ” I’m a limited partner investor in that real estate play!”
The campus, and the growth of Google’s Boulder workforce from its current 300 to a build-out level of 1,500, garnered enthusiastic support from Boulder’s business and civic elite in a series of Camera op-ed pieces and comments to reporters. Glowing comments came from, among others, Liz Hanson, the city’s economic vitality coordinator, Boulder Chamber President John Tayer, Boulder Community Foundation President Josie Heath and Frances Draper, CU’s vice president for strategic relations. A City Council member from the Council’s thin left-leaning majority told me, “How can I be against Google? I use Google tools in my work every day.”
Google loves Boulder
Google, for its part, appears equally in love with Boulder. Scott Green, Google’s Engineering Site Director for Boulder, told the Camera’s Alex Burness that “our employees truly identify themselves with Boulder,” adding: “There’s a creative, positive energy.”Google employees in Boulder will be working on some high-profile, high-stakes Google projects, including Google Drive, Google Now, Geo and Payments, as Green told the Camera’s Wallace. Google’s overall activities as a company range from such ubiquitous elements as search, search-related advertising, AdSense ads nestled amid various websites’ content, and the Android mobile operating system. Less famous so far are efforts as varied as a burgeoning effort to rewire America with Google Fiber, and what the company calls “moonshot” projects, a list that includes driverless cars, a fleet of drones, the Glass project of computers tucked into eyeglasses, and Calico, a project focused on improving the health of the aging.
In third-quarter 2013, Google reported $16.5 billion in revenue and $2.8 billion (17%) in net income. Its current stock price values Google the company at about $335 billion, giving it the world’s fourth-highest market value among public companies, behind only Apple, Exxon Mobil and Microsoft.
Will “invaders” fit into Boulder?
Then there are those less enthused. The New York Times noted that some locals “say they don’t like the folks pouring into town to work at places like Google. They’re insular. They’re driving up housing prices. And they fear those newcomers are more like invaders than people trying to fit into the community.”
Camera op-ed writer Ron Geary summed up concerns expressed by Molly Graecen and Allison Davis in earlier Camera letters as “ranging from the impacts to housing, cost of both rentals and ownership; traffic; general congestion resulting from overly dense land use; quality of life; and Google’s corporate values versus Boulder’s.”
Concerns about economic disruption and traffic congestion in major corridors near 30th and Pearl Streets appear well based. Council member Suzanne Jones commented to the Times about rising real estate prices and “local businesses that have been here for decades being priced out.”
Perhaps closer to the heart of the matter was the Camera’s editorial voice chiming in that “there is a real risk of Boulder becoming essentially a gated community with only the wealthy living inside and the many workers who support the residents’ lavish lifestyles commuting in from worker-bee satellite communities.”
Architect and planning Board member Leonard May noted in a Camera op-ed that, as earlier, “we’re in another cycle of intense development pressure,” and that “no independent economic analysis has been done to establish whether development pays its own way.” Beyond just housing prices, he added: “Examples from tech’s entry into Palo Alto or Venice Beach … suggest that there are hugely disruptive impacts on diversity in those communities, both economically and socially.”
Part of the issue, a Camera editorial noted, is that “effects of Google’s Boulder expansion will ripple through the economy of the city and the region.” From a purely city-planning standpoint, there’s concern on the Council and Planning Board that, as the Times put it, “Google’s famously lavish campuses — with cafeterias, exercise areas and lounge-like common spaces where employees chill out behind closed doors — will create a dead zone for pedestrian and retail activity.”
One Times commenter who claimed to have worked for Google six years, put it tersely:
“Everything you need for your working day is self-contained. No reason to be outside the Google offices, certainly not for food or in many cases other amenities (dry cleaning, hair cuts, etc.). I experienced the same insular office in Dublin, Phoenix, Mountain View, etc. Google is certainly a great company, but they’re not such a great member of the community.”
There’s a deeper concern about Google’s culture changing Boulder’s overall tone from that of a haven for what sociologists call the Cultural Creatives to a nest of fairly colorless software engineers. How will the “creative, positive energy” that Googlers profess to love hold up? Will the Big Google Footprint further crush what remains of the bohemian, hippie vibe that many in Boulder once grooved on?
Camera letter writer Paul Walmsley decried, though overstating somewhat, a lack of public amenities in Boulder’s Googleplex (actually some publicly available facilities are promised, including, as a Google official told the Camera’s Lewis, “Tech Talk space for public forums and an indoor courtyard that can be used for both private and public events”): “The lack of businesses to attract pedestrian traffic will create a civic ‘dead zone’ in this area, compounding existing civic planning errors in the 30th Street corridor.” Further: “The unique environment of Boulder is what draws the new tenant of this office park and its employees to our town. Ironically, this development threatens that environment.” And in conclusion: ” Monolithic office parks don’t belong in our residential and public commercial neighborhoods.”
And some warnings get more personal, focusing in on Googlers themselves. The Times article inspired some zinging comments posted by readers, such as:
“Tech corporations love to move into politically liberal cities. However, they bring with them libertarian ideals and centrist corporate Democrats. Before long the progressive values that make these cities desirable gets whittled away. Changing the area into a less interesting, more conservative place.”
And another Times commenter:
“The idea of Boulder turning into another Palo Alto depresses me. Palo Alto used to be a fun place. Now there are too many workaholic engineers who get all of their needs provided at work by their employers. Things have dried up and gone boring. When you have to depend on law and med students for the liveliness of your community, you know you’re in trouble.”
The Times commenters were on a role:
“This same situation is taking place in Seattle, where Amazon has basically wrecked a good chunk of downtown Seattle in all the well-known ways. Nobody likes gentrified corporate monoculture.”
Camera letter writer Allison Davis reflected on her experience in Silicon Valley:
“As Google expanded, they rapidly priced out those who had not been lucky enough to buy housing in Mountain View before 1990. A city can lose its feel easily in a decade, and I already see that happening in Boulder.”
Zing, zing and zing again!
But now, a word of restraint. Googlers that I’ve met are just people. They love their company and their jobs. But they live, they love, they value culture, they raise children. They’re outdoorsy and athletic. Stereotyping such bright, intelligent and, yes, mostly young people would be a shallow endeavor. Are Googlers any more or less lively and multidimensional than scientists at NIST, NOAA or NCAR?
Googlers – many of them software engineers but others designers, inventors and administrators – will probably drive up prices. They will remain a rather clannish bunch. But just how Google’s expanding Boulder footprint and workforce will change the tone and feel of Boulder remains to be seen.
Whatever the net impact, Boulder will never be the same. But that was going to happen anyway, right?
Readers will have noted that this account is compiled from secondary sources. Sadly, Boulder Reporter’s current business model precludes the reporter from conducting primary research, and also from zealously fact-checking the work of his fellow journalists.