Google isn’t exactly a name you associate with urban planning, but newly released renders for its San Jose campus are… pleasantly surprising. Unlike the typical closed-off tech campuses, the Downtown West project looks like an open plan neighbourhood that’s actually part of the city itself.
In a roughly 40-minute video presentation, Google explained that it wasn’t interested in building a cookie-cutter campus that centered around a single building. Instead, it says it wants the roughly 32.37 ha campus to include residential spaces, amenities for the public, lots of open green space, and utilise existing historic buildings in the area. This is counter to some major campuses — like the Apple campus which is a feat of architecture hidden from public view by tall walls, or the campuses of HP or Microsoft, which are relatively remote despite being close to major population areas.
In its announcement blog, Google highlighted some early-stage illustrations for a few of the key concept areas. For example, “The Gateway” (which is the top photo for this blog) is meant to be a 0.30 ha open space that integrates the San Jose Water Company Building and surrounding residential neighbourhoods. The idea is for it to be a “flexible plaza for temporary pop-up programming and events,” and include amenities like an amphitheater that’s also open for public use.
There’s also “The Meander,” a 0.63 ha urban promenade that will house a lawn for events, screenings, and performances, as well as outdoor seating. Google says it envisions this area to be an arts and culture centre that is “an inviting place to spend time with friends and family”, and that the area will be closed to cars.
The last specific area Google outlined is “The Creekside Walk,” which is meant to be a walkable “urban-to-nature” connector that doubles as an area for environmental education.
Speaking of which, Google emphasised climate change as a major factor in the overall design in both the aforementioned video presentation and in its gargantuan 473-page PDF outlining the project’s design standards and guidelines. Supposedly, nearly all the proposed buildings will run off solar or electric energy. The campus itself also aims to be a “20-minute city”, as in you can walk most of the city within 20 minutes. Along that vein, Google says it aims for roughly 65% of the campus to be accessible via walking, cycling, public transit, or carpool to discourage single-car use. As for greenery, Google says the campus will include at least 10 parks as well as several trails.
That said, a good chunk of the space will be dedicated to office buildings — a planned 7.3 million gross square feet in total. It also plans to include up to 5,900 residential “dwelling units,” a 300-room hotel, and 500,000 gross square feet dedicated for “active uses” (i.e., retail, restaurants, live entertainment, childcare facilities, and non-profits, etc.).
While all this looks and sounds like a refreshing change, it remains to be seen how the local San José community feels about it. Giant tech companies and their walled-off campuses have, after all, played a significant role in gentrifying Silicon Valley and the California housing crisis. You only have to look as far as the Amazon HQ2 debacle in New York City to see that plenty of communities aren’t always fond of giant tech corporate headquarters moving into the neighbourhood. Nods to climate change are nice, especially given the raging wildfires California’s been experiencing, but it also wouldn’t be the first time Big Tech has rolled out splashy PR initiatives to distract from problems they helped create.
Realistically speaking, any actual building is probably a few years out. Right now, Google is soliciting feedback from the community, so we’ll have to see whether any changes are made based on that. (Hopefully, Google will actually listen to San José residents and take their input seriously.) San José is expected to make a decision on the campus proposal in autumn 2021.