Big money and even bigger egos are colliding in the tech world’s new company towns.
The most interesting part of Google’s proposed new headquarters is not the open-air layout, the glass canopies or the wild renderings — it’s how the company had hoped to convince Mountain View to approve the project. Google offered $240 million in community benefits in exchange for the California city granting the company development rights for millions of square footage in the North Bayshore area. It’s an offer that was, at once, generous and highly self-interested, as you might expect from a company that is more powerful — and far richer— than most countries.
But in hour five of a special meeting of the Mountain View city council, it was clear that would not be enough. This tiny city has Google fatigue, and no amount of parks, bike lanes, free buses or other community benefits can make up for the fact that Mountain View is apparently uncomfortable with being a company town.
Ultimately the city council voted four to three to allow less than one-quarter of the construction Google had hoped for, in favor of an expansion proposal by LinkedIn, which came with far fewer community benefits. David Radcliffe, Google’s vice president of real estate, was visibly upset by the vote, characterizing it as a “significant blow” to the company, which has grown to expect getting what it wants from Mountain View.
City bureaucrats often characterize themselves as victims of large tech corporations that threaten to “overrun” their towns. But the reality is far more complex. The relationship between a giant, global corporation and a tiny municipality is a strange one, unbalanced and yet in many ways symbiotic. Tech companies are not colonizing cities against their will. Cities need tech money; and tech needs city support — especially as more companies buy more property all over Silicon Valley, planning for greater growth. The result is a redefining of local public-private partnership. Where cities once ran on tax dollars, selective corporate philanthropy has emerged as a significant driving force of urban policy. Tech companies are reengineering city streets, building city police stations and parks, and even helping cities cover the salaries of the public servants they rely on.