Cities, Urban Design, Affordable Housing, Technology, Silicon Valley, Transit
After years of real estate misfires, Google is trying to make amends by investing in neighborhood redevelopment projects, including $1 billion in affordable housing.
In a quarter century, when she's nearing retirement, urban designer Laura Crescimano might step off a BART train from San Francisco, make her way out of the bustling Diridon Station in San Jose and stand in the heart of a city she envisioned in 2020. She might turn down the street as local shops prop open their doors, and the kids are screaming on the playground across the way, and big colorful signs advertise next weekend's outdoor dance festival.
As she wanders down 2045-era Autumn Street, there's no square foot of space she can't explain. She notices the little things, like the way the light hits her face over the top of the redesigned historic Pattern Works and Foundry building. The distant sounds of children at a nature camp next to Los Gatos Creek. Passing cars so infrequent she can jaywalk without looking both ways. New apartment buildings mixed in among the historic structures, many filled with affordable housing. She feels the quiet way the wind moves between the buildings.
She stops for coffee, taking a moment to appreciate the new mural on the building face across the street. Then she turns down the trail off of Autumn, heading for the creekside. On the path, the city recedes away from this tiny oasis at the heart of San Jose. For one deep breath, she is alone among the green and the echo of the river. As much as anything she can see, she appreciates what she can't: no towers up lining up against the edge of the sidewalk, no security booths, no wide stretches of cracking parking lot. No gate with a big bubbly "Google" over the top.
Oh, right. Minor detail: All of this San Jose is a Google campus. Sure, it's a neighborhood instead of an office park, but at the end of the day, Google still owns most of the land. Seven million square feet of office space and thousands of Googlers fill some of the new high-rise buildings, but Crescimano can't really feel their presence here, at the edge of the river, surrounded by community parks.
That's the dream. In the here and now â€” the last weeks of 2020 â€” all Crescimano has is a 473-page design document for the DowntownWest project in one hand and the ambition of one of the world's largest companies in the other. Google owns about 80 acres of land in the heart of San Jose, but it's mostly abandoned buildings and a few historic landmarks. There's a train station and a couple of buildings with affordable places to rent, but for a city center, it's remarkably silent. It epitomizes the fact that every working day (before the pandemic, at least), more people leave the Bay Area's most populous city than stay inside it. That's what Crescimano wants to help change, even if it takes more than 20 years to do it.
Google is trying to reinvent its physical self by building mixed-use neighborhood developments, and Crescimano's Sitelab urban studio is responsible for designing and planning both the DowntownWest project and the rebuild of the land next to the company's Mountain View headquarters (called North Bayshore). Under Sitelab's guidance, the designs for both have rejected the suburban office parks that defined Silicon Valley's past in favor of urban centers that make the "campus," and Google, disappear. There are innumerable ways the DowntownWest project could go wrong before construction is completed in more than two decades: It could fail to be approved by city council in the spring, create an endless traffic and construction nightmare, drive up property prices and drive out local residents, or become yet another metaphor for Google taking over the world. Whether it's the fantasy or the nightmare or a more likely in between, Crescimano's name will be on the outcome.
Before she can get upset with me for saying she's the one guiding Google's future in California, you need to know something about Crescimano. She doesn't like to take credit. She doesn't believe in the master architect or the lead designer. She'd probably rather this story feature every community group involved in the San Jose development process than dig into how someone like her can wield so much influence over Google. She's the opposite of the Silicon Valley ethos â€” which is why the story of Google's future in the Bay is also a story about her.
In 2006, in graduate school at Harvard, Crescimano's architecture thesis caused a debate. Instead of a building, she designed a series of adaptable red Winnebagos for Moveo