Going nowhere fast: Traffic issues could stall tech growth

Source:Silicon Valley Business Journal

Google and LinkedIn’s ambitious campus plans will rise — or not — on Mountain View’s new car rules

The reality, of course, was more nuanced: While LinkedIn Corp. won the lion’s share of the limited development rights, Google (and other developers) also secured some space.

Yet six months later, it’s becoming clear that anyone who wants to build in Mountain View’s North Bayshore district — whether LinkedIn, Google or third-party real estate developers — is going to face a far less flexible decision-maker: The automobile.

That’s because it is traffic — and not city council fiat — that actually governs the build-out of the area, a 500-acre suburban business enclave that’s home to four major companies: Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft Corp. and Intuit Corp., all of whom have big growth plans.

As plans percolate through the city’s development process, attention is now turning to how companies will meet tough trip cap and drive-alone targets built into a new land-use plan. The rules require them to cooperate in an unprecedented way to facilitate major infrastructure improvements, despite divergent interests and real estate pressures. If that doesn’t happen, the tech titans’ growth plans are a no-go.

“Can these major corporate players really find a win-win-win situation where they do something that’s never been done before?” asked Mountain View councilman Mike Kasperzak. “That would be great to see all these guys come together and do something no one thought could be done.”

If successful, the framework could become a model for in-demand cities seeking to handle the side effects of growth, and push companies to start to pay for the infrastructure that their ambitious expansions require. Yet the Mountain View concept is something of an experiment, with experts saying there are few precedents quite like it.

“A lot of these concepts have been applied to central cities that have really nice grid systems,” said Rick Williams, a transportation management consultant based in Portland who has led similar efforts. “I think what’s fresh and new is that they’re trying this in a suburban area.”

Keep a lid on traffic — or else
The issues exemplify the complications Bay Area cities face in accommodating tech-fueled expansion while reducing the resultant impact on traffic — a challenge that will only grow as millions of square feet of new office space come online in the years ahead. The results (or lack thereof) in Mountain View will impact anyone who drives that section of 101, and be closely studied by businesses and urban planners tackling similar problems.

There are already signs it won’t be so simple, given the multiple land owners in the area and their differing business needs and timelines. Last month, Google fired off a letter to the city saying it had no immediate plans to give up property that’s in the path of a new frontage road LinkedIn is proposing as part of its new campus that would distribute traffic more efficiently in the area. The potential conflict has raised concerns by city council members over the viability of the transportation measures and indeed the entire regulatory scheme.

The ramifications for the biggest companies involved are huge: For LinkedIn, the outcome will determine whether and how soon the company can finally realize its dream of a ground-up corporate headquarters after years patching together disparate sites. For Google, the uncertainty may be fueling its continued expansion outside of Mountain View.

The plan is part of a growing trend in which cities are setting limits on car trips for projects or entire districts. Locally, Stanford University since 2000 has been subject to a trip cap and has reduced its drive-alone car rate from 72 percent to almost 40 percent.

Other cities have also set driving-reduction goals. San Mateo has required certain developments to report their car trips to the city annually. In Menlo Park, Facebook’s West Campus can’t generate more than 15,000 trips a day. “The spreadsheets look like the most boring thing on the planet. But it’s actually revolutionary,” said Adina Levin, co-founder of Friends of Caltrain and a land-use blogger and advocate.

Mountain View’s requirements stem from the new North Bayshore Precise Plan, which allows up to 3.4 million square feet of net-new office space to be built there. (Prior proposals from Google and Intuit already soaked up some of the square footage.)

At the May council meeting, LinkedIn snagged 1.5 million square feet of office, Google got 515,000 square feet — much less than it had requested — and developersBroadreach Capital Partners and Rees Properties went home with smaller amounts.

So far, Broadreach and LinkedIn have submitted formal proposals and have begun the public hearing process. Google in the spring submitted a proposal for a 600,000-square-foot project called Charleston East, next to its current headquarters, but it has yet to move into the next phase of the development process.

Uncertainty over building permits
To actually build anything in North Bayshore, applicants will have to comply with two overall goals when it comes to traffic: Get so-called “drive-alone” car trips down to 45 percent for their entire North Bayshore holdings, not just their new projects. At the same time, traffic counts at three key “gateway” intersections — on Shoreline Boulevard, Rengstorff Avenue and San Antonio Road — must remain below strict new limits, even while millions of square feet of new office space are being added.

If the numbers don’t meet the requirements? Sorry, techies: No building permits for you.

“The council said, if the trip cap is exceeded, or you can’t demonstrate how your project complies, you can’t construct,” said Randy Tsuda, the city’s community development director.

Experts say the drive-alone rate shouldn’t be too hard for the companies to meet, given their well-documented shuttle systems — particularly Google’s. But the infrastructure improvements will require them to join forces in a way they haven’t so far to meet the car caps, which no single company controls on their own.

The plan identifies a menu of priorities, from a pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 to improved sidewalks and bike crossings. Project applicants are tasked with taking them on and paying for them, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Getting those projects done is what allows the district to handle the growth, so they must be completed prior to projects coming online. The city is about to launch a new study “that will inform the timing of when these traffic improvements need to be made,” Tsuda said. “Do five of them need to be implemented prior to the first 500,000 square feet? Three? And in what order do they need to be made?”

LinkedIn’s ambitious plans
The transportation discussion is coming to the fore after LinkedIn formally submitted its development application for a 1.87 million-square-foot mixed-use complex, which will bring up to 8,000 new workers — plus more shoppers and moviegoers — to the project just off Shoreline Boulevard and Highway 101. The massive proposal includes 1.5 million square feet of office, 93,000 square feet of retail, a 98,000-square-foot health club, 99,000-square-foot hotel and 88,500-square-foot luxury theater.

At a city council study session last month, LinkedIn real estate chief Jim Morgensen said the professional networking company was bullish on its ability to meet the city’s 45 percent drive-alone rule. Already, just 56 percent of LinkedIn employees travel to work in single-occupancy vehicles, he said, about in line with the North Bayshore overall. And that’s without any carrots or sticks: As part of its new campus, LinkedIn will ratchet up its alternative transportation programs. (For instance, it will end the tradition of free parking for employees — something that will make transit and shuttles much more appealing for workers.)

“We believe we will not have any problem achieving something that’s well below that,” Morgensen said of the 45 percent goal.

Yet the project’s closest intersection at Shoreline Boulevard and Highway 101 is at 93 percent of its trip cap, according to the most recent survey in March. That means under the rules, it can handle just 450 more car trips during the morning peak time of 7 to 10 a.m. LinkedIn will have to come up with a way to not exceed that number, or it will scuttle its own building plans and those of everyone else, too.

That’s where big-ticket infrastructure projects come in, projects that will require LinkedIn and its neighbors — most notably, Google — to get on the same page.

The two companies have an interesting relationship. While they collaborate on some regional policy issues, it’s no secret they have competed for the same real estate in and around the North Bayshore, and that LinkedIn has felt the squeeze for years.

To meet the traffic rules, LinkedIn’s proposal contemplates a frontage road running along Highway 101 from Shoreline Boulevard to Rengstorff Avenue. That’s a critical connection, because while Shoreline is essentially already at its car limit, Rengstorff still has capacity for more vehicles, and connecting them would allow for more efficient traffic distribution.

But the road, which was previously identified in the city’s North Bayshore plan as a priority, would require that Google give up at least some of a 61,000-square-foot building it owns at 1667 Plymouth St.

Google actually was proposing a similar frontage road as part of its massive vision for North Bayshore earlier this year. In a letter sent to the city council last month, Google real estate executive Mark Golan reminds the council that it did not approve Google’s original application in full, then notes that LinkedIn’s alternate frontage road proposal “would remove some of our land and most likely require the demolition of all or part of our building at 1667 Plymouth Street.” Golan continues: “Google does not support this alternate route, and we do not plan to sacrifice any of our land or buildings to accommodate this route.”

Google also dismisses a new connection between Plymouth Street and Space Park Way that is included in the city’s list of needed North Bayshore improvements and is also needed for LinkedIn. The street would require the demolition of two Google buildings. “We can’t part with these properties in the near term, and we have no plans to reexamine this until our plans for the Huff and Charleston South sites come to fruition,” Golan writes, referring to two Google proposals that were also chopped in the May council meeting.

Despite the apparent impasse, LinkedIn and Google sounded upbeat. In a statement, LinkedIn said: “We have no doubt that Google shares the community’s concerns that traffic in the Shoreline area remain manageable, and we look forward to working with them as we do the right thing together for the City of Mountain View.”

Google said in a statement: “As a member of the Mountain View community, Google is fully committed to helping solve the traffic problems in North Bayshore. We look forward to the City of Mountain View establishing the framework for this discussion.”

Trouble ahead?
Yet at the recent council study session, the situation garnered more than a few statements of concern.

Councilman Lenny Siegel expressed doubt that the issue could be resolved quickly. “I don’t see this as simple,” he said. “As I see it, (Google has) very little incentive to tear down their buildings until we come up with a better plan.”

Councilman Chris Clark said he’d need to see more evidence that the transportation plan elements “are actually going to happen” for him to approve the LinkedIn project. “I worry about the existing incentive structure with multiple parties involved,” he said.

“I implore the various parties to get together,” councilman Ken Rosenberg said at the meeting. “I feel like you need to get into a room, close the door, bring some cots, and — you’re going to work this out, because this is in the interest of everyone.”

There are other uncertainties. The original plan didn’t include housing, but the current council is adding it back in. That dynamic could end up improving traffic, but the process for implementing the zoning changes is expected to delay development plans further.

Still, what’s good for LinkedIn may also be good for Google, and observers said it is likely the search-engine giant would come to the table in the end.

In an interview, Councilman Kasperzak said it should be clear to Google (or any other office builder in the area) that the infrastructure improvements will govern not just LinkedIn’s hopes, but everyone else’s, too. While Google is behind LinkedIn in the development process, it presumably expects to build something at some point. Yet it won’t be able to build if the traffic counts aren’t meeting the plan’s numbers.

“All LinkedIn has to do is violate the trip cap, and Google doesn’t get any building permits either,” Kasperzak said. “It’s like, well, Google, do you want to be able to develop?”

Indeed, if the companies can come together, experts say the traffic goals should be doable — especially since they involve wealthy tech giants that have already invested in shuttle systems to ferry workers to and from corporate campuses.

In Portland, consultant Rick Williams worked on a plan for the city’s Lloyd District that aimed to dramatically reduce drive-alone car trips. It was implemented in the mid-1990s, when 76 percent of workers arrived alone in cars.

“Today, 41 percent do,” Williams said. “People thought we were nuts. They said, ‘You’re going to kill your district.’ All our parking was free in 1997. We eliminated free parking, and we took the money and reinvested it back in the district. We used parking as a resource to pay for the infrastructure improvements that we wanted.”

And despite the friction with LinkedIn, Google is engaged on the issue.

This week, the Valley Transportation Authority announced Google is funding a study that will explore new mass-transit connections to the area that could include a light rail connection “and the development and/or application of new technologies.”

(Google and VTA at this point are only committing to the study, but it’s hard to see how VTA could extend the system without substantial financial support from the tech companies it would benefit.)

“They’re keenly aware of the trip cap,” Councilman Siegel said. “So they’re supportive of transportation innovation investment, because they need it to build these projects that everyone thinks were approved during the beauty contest — but weren’t. So it puts us in a strong position to argue for transit investments that they’re going to pay for. But it takes a while.”

Adina Levin, the transit advocate, said she thought the Mountain View plan’s challenges — while formidable — could be overcome.

“Whenever you have different entities that have similar but not identical interests, you have human beings — and human beings need to hash things out,” she said.

“When you look at Bay Area overall, we have some really significant challenges in terms of transportation and housing that require working together. But that’s the fundamental DNA of the Bay Area. When we’re working well, we can save the bay and the watersheds. When we work terribly, we faction into our individual interests and things go badly.”

Or, as Kasperzak put it: “These guys are the petri dish for transportation of the 21st and 22nd century in the U.S. If they can do it with the Internet, I’m sure they can do it with something as mundane as cars.”