Google's success towers over city

Googleplex revives hometown but also creates a little paranoia

October 13, 2007|By Jessica Guynn and Michelle Quinn | Jessica Guynn and Michelle Quinn,Los Angeles Times

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Bracing for an invasion of Google Inc. employees in February after the Internet search giant bought up its office complex, startup Beyond.com erected a makeshift sign: "I for one welcome our Google overlords."

The one-liner, lifted from an episode of The Simpsons, captured the ambivalence felt by Mountain View inhabitants over how rapidly Google is taking over their Silicon Valley community of 73,000.

The same company that blankets the city with free wireless Internet access and finances Mountain View's high-tech bookmobile also clogs the streets with traffic and bothers residents by flying corporate jets overhead.

To many in Mountain View, Google has become a primary source of economic aid, curiosity, inspiration and pride.

After four years of city budget cuts and hiring freezes, Google has contributed to the community's economic renaissance.

Two years ago, Google ranked 21st in Santa Clara County for assessed business property - computers, fax machines and other taxable business equipment.

Today, it's fourth behind Cisco, Intel Corp. and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

Google bought more property in the county last year than anyone but three commercial real estate companies. It's in talks with the city to build a hotel and conference center on the Google side of town, which would help Mountain View realize a long-held dream.

"Google is what pulled us through," said Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a regional planning group.

The company also has injected Mountain View with the kind of energy usually associated with a liberal arts college. Googlers, as they're known, toss Frisbees, glide around campus on bicycles sporting orange safety flags and pedal together on company-provided seven-seaters while discussing software code. Tourists snap pictures in front of the Googleplex.

But Mountain View and Google are grappling with town-and-gown issues. Some influential Mountain View residents grumble that Google hasn't been a model corporate citizen: It has escalated the pain of rush hour, displaced small companies to make room for its own troops and raised a ruckus by striking an unusual deal for Google's billionaire co-founders to land their private planes at nearby Moffett Field.

Some residents worry about how disconnected Google seems from the community. The company occupies a private oasis on the other side of Highway 101 from downtown. The city has installed more traffic lights and is considering adding more sidewalks and bicycle lanes on highway overpasses to accommodate Googlers who might want to head downtown.

Google's stock-option millionaires don't have much reason to patronize local stores and restaurants. To keep employees working hard, the company pampers them with gourmet meals, haircuts, dentist and doctor visits, massage therapy, car washes and oil changes - all at the Googleplex. Google also gives free rides to and from work every day aboard 32 shuttle buses that run on biodiesel.

"You don't really know what's going on in there," said Kevin Cuneo, who grew up in nearby Redwood City and now works at Eastwick. "It's a huge growing mass. No one knows when it's going to end."

Google says it takes seriously its responsibility to be a good neighbor. The company gave the city a $200,000 bookmobile that's environmentally friendly and features laptops that fold down from outside the vehicle. It operates a free citywide wireless network. It provides grants to local nonprofits, lets local police train on campus and maintains a nature trail.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the company's co-presidents, created the Web-searching technology behind Google while computer-science graduate students at Stanford University. In 1998 they moved the fledgling company from Page's dorm room to a friend's Menlo Park garage, then to a Palo Alto office. After outgrowing several spaces, Google moved to Mountain View in 2003.

Although Google, which is valued at $177 billion, won't disclose how many of its employees work in its headquarters, the company says about 1,500 employees make their home here and contribute to the local economy.

There is a downside, some say: Googlers compete with each other to buy property, pricing some middle-class buyers out of the market.

Jessica Guynn and Michelle Quinn write for the Los Angeles Times.

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