Google's Expansion in Boulder Has Its Critics

As befits a company with massive brainpower and wealth, behemoth Google is moving highly adroitly as it expands its presence in Boulder. Most residents are stoically accepting the move. Some are not.

Google has joined forces with two credentialed Denver-based firms -- private equity fund Brickstone Partners and commercial property developers Forum Real Estate Group -- to put together a deal to acquire more than four acres on the southwest corner of 30th St. and Pearl St., creating what Brickstone's Daniel Otis aptly described to BizWest magazine as "kind of the last large contiguous development parcel in the core of Boulder."

It is an almost uncannily perfect site, nestled between the planned Boulder Junction transit hub, the 29th Street shopping complex, massive new apartment and condo developments in three directions and a Whole Foods Markets. Enlisted as the team's Boulder-based negotiator working to acquire the disparate parcels was Terry Kruegel, a well-regarded commercial real estate specialist who first came to Boulder in 1973 to study Buddhism with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. How Boulder is that?

Among Google's largest sites

The land purchases -- and the more recent approval by both Planning Board and City Council of what is expected to grow by 2017 into a three-building, 330,000-square-foot office complex -- proceeded smoothly. The site would be, according to Daily Camera business reporter Alicia Wallace, "one of the tech giant's largest in the United States."

Behind the scenes and largely unreported is some effort to identify or quantify the economic impact - on real estate values, retail commerce, and other dimensions. One friend e-mailed me to "go easy" on reporting about Google coming to Boulder, adding: "I'm a limited partner investor in that real estate play!"

The campus, and the growth of Google's Boulder workforce from its current 340 to a build-out level of 1,500, garnered enthusiastic support from Boulder's business and civic elite in a series of Daily Camera op-ed pieces and comments to reporters -- so smooth as to suggest some professional PR activity in the background. A City Council member from the Council's thin left-leaning majority told me, "How can I be against Google? I use Google tools in my work every day."

Google loves Boulder

Google, for its part, appears equally in love with Boulder. Scott Green, Google's Engineering Site Director for Boulder, told the Camera's Alex Burness that "our employees truly identify themselves with Boulder," adding: "There's a creative, positive energy."

Google employees in Boulder will be working on such high-profile, high-stakes Google projects as Google Drive, Google Now, Geo and Payments, as Green told the Camera's Wallace. Google's overall activities as a company range from their ubiquitous search engine and search-related advertising to the semi-ubiquitous (competing with Apple) Android mobile operating system. Less famous so far are efforts as varied as an effort to rewire America with Google Fiber, and what the company calls "moonshot" projects, a list that includes driverless cars, a fleet of drones, and even a health-research thinktank called Calico.

Some have doubts

Some of the citizenry are not enthused. The New York Times noted that some locals "say they don't like the folks pouring into town to work at places like Google. They're insular. They're driving up housing prices. And they fear those newcomers are more like invaders than people trying to fit into the community."

Concerns about economic disruption and traffic congestion in major corridors near 30th and Pearl Streets appear well based. Council member Suzanne Jones commented to the Times about rising real estate prices and "local businesses that have been here for decades being priced out."

Perhaps closer to the heart of the matter was the Camera's editorial voice chiming in that "there is a real risk of Boulder becoming essentially a gated community with only the wealthy living inside and the many workers who support the residents' lavish lifestyles commuting in from worker-bee satellite communities."

Architect and planning Board member Leonard May noted in a Camera op-ed that, as earlier, "we're in another cycle of intense development pressure," and that "no independent economic analysis has been done to establish whether development pays its own way." Beyond just housing prices, he added: "Examples from tech's entry into Palo Alto or Venice Beach ... suggest that there are hugely disruptive impacts on diversity in those communities, both economically and socially."

"Dead Zone"

Part of the issue, a Camera editorial noted, is that "effects of Google's Boulder expansion will ripple through the economy of the city and the region." From a purely city-planning standpoint, there's concern on the Council and Planning Board that, as the Times put it, "Google's famously lavish campuses -- with cafeterias, exercise areas and lounge-like common spaces where employees chill out behind closed doors -- will create a dead zone for pedestrian and retail activity."

One Times commenter who claimed to have worked for Google six years, put it tersely: "Everything you need for your working day is self-contained. No reason to be outside the Google offices, certainly not for food or in many cases other amenities (dry cleaning, hair cuts, etc.). I experienced the same insular office in Dublin, Phoenix, Mountain View, etc. Google is certainly a great company, but they're not such a great member of the community."

Camera letter writer Paul Walmsley lamented: "The lack of businesses to attract pedestrian traffic will create a civic 'dead zone' in this area, compounding existing civic planning errors in the 30th Street corridor." Further: "The unique environment of Boulder is what draws the new tenant of this office park and its employees to our town. Ironically, this development threatens that environment. ... Monolithic office parks don't belong in our residential and public commercial neighborhoods."

"Workaholic engineers"

There is concern about Google's culture changing Boulder's overall tone from that of a haven for what sociologists call the Cultural Creatives to a nest of fairly colorless software engineers. How will the "creative, positive energy" that Googlers profess to love about Boulder hold up? Will the Big Google Footprint further crush what remains of the bohemian, hippie heritage that many in Boulder have valued, as expressed in the fervent bumper sticker, "Keep Boulder Weird!"

The Times article inspired similar concern among commenters, such as: "Tech corporations love to move into politically liberal cities. However, they bring with them libertarian ideals and centrist corporate Democrats. Before long the progressive values that make these cities desirable gets whittled away. Changing the area into a less interesting, more conservative place."

And another Times commenter: "This same situation is taking place in Seattle, where Amazon has basically wrecked a good chunk of downtown Seattle in all the well-known ways. Nobody likes gentrified corporate monoculture."

Camera letter writer Allison Davis reflected on her experience in Silicon Valley: "As Google expanded, they rapidly priced out those who had not been lucky enough to buy housing in Mountain View before 1990. A city can lose its feel easily in a decade, and I already see that happening in Boulder."

But dare we scorn Google?

Speaking as your loyal HuffPost blogger, I must note that the Googlers I've met are quite special people. Any attempts to stereotype them would be folly. By inviting Googlers in, Boulder is piggybacking on the due diligence already exercised by those who do the hiring at Google. Are Googlers any more or less lively and multidimensional than employees at our major science and tech research labs and our dozens of app-economy start-ups, which are already flooding downtown Boulder with cheery-looking Millennials?

The influx of Googlers will probably drive up housing prices further, and they may prove to be a workaholic and insular bunch. But Google, innovating on about fifty fronts at once, is perhaps the world's leading player in a process -- call it Internetification -- that is reshaping our world. With a slightly heavy heart, Boulder will welcome them.