When Silicon Valley communities have too many tech jobs, new residents

Many communities would love to have a tech company headquarters in town but what happens if that company is Google and it brings many residents and employees?

Google owns or leases about 7.3 million square feet of office space in Mountain View — roughly equivalent to three Empire State Buildings. That includes most of the property around its headquarters on the north side of the city near Highway 101, which cuts the length of the valley, according to Transwestern, a commercial real estate brokerage.

That success has brought Mountain View loads of tax dollars and a 3.3 percent unemployment rate, as well as skyrocketing home prices and intolerable gridlock. Good and bad, tech is responsible for most of it: Technology companies account for 27 percent of the jobs in the Silicon Valley region, compared with 7 percent in California and about 5 percent nationally, according to Moody’s Analytics.

The result is an existential argument that pits residents who want to halt the city’s growth against people who think Mountain View needs to grow up and become a real city.

Mountain View, about 40 miles south of San Francisco, has close to 80,000 people; with its strip-mall thoroughfares and streets of single-family homes, it looks like a sleepy suburb. But since hiring has boomed, the city’s roads swell with commuters during the morning and evening rush.

While this may get extra attention because it involves Google (does that do no evil pledge apply to the communities in which its offices are based?), this is a question that many suburbs face at one point or another. When new developments are proposed, whether commercial, industrial, residential, or something else, how might these change the existing character of the community? Jobs are often seen as good things: they provide employment and the buildings for employees generate property tax dollars, reducing the dependence on residential property taxes. Yet, what if those same jobs lead to new office parks that take up a lot of land, new infrastructure needs such as roads, water and sewer lines, and schools, and an influx of traffic? Or, what if such jobs require tax breaks or special deals for a single business or industry?

Two possible outcomes here (and this is not an exhaustive list):

1. Why aren’t urbanists calling for companies like Google to move to large cities? A lot of the issues with infrastructure and space could be more easily absorbed by a major city. Three Empire State Buildings worth of space is still hard to come by but Granted, this hasn’t gone smoothly recently in San Francisco but developing new land leads to particular challenges, especially in places used to a smaller population.

2. At some point, Google could go the way of other companies and organizations and start making demands to push Mountain View to accept what they want. The end of the article hints at this; if Google brings in a lot of new employees, they could even sway local elections. Could Google hold the suburb hostage to get what it wants?

Comparing New York locations “Then and Now”

Photographer Evan Joseph has co-authored a book that compares New York City locations Then and Now.

The book, an update to an earlier edition, pairs old photos of New York City with current photos of the same location. While photos in the previous edition didn’t always match exactly the heights and camera angles of the originals, in this edition, Joseph went through a painstaking process of matching the angle of each old photo. He did so by loading each historical image onto his iPad, he explained to us last week, going to each street photographed, and looking around until he could lock down the location of at least one building in the old photo. “Then I would keep doing it…keep moving around and around until I could get that building into the same location.”

While Joseph had no desire to use 100-year-old photography equipment to replicate the old photos—and is, in fact, known in the photography community for carrying around a lot of modern equipment—he found that he did miss one aspect of “then” photography. “What I quickly figured out was that the elevated subway lines that ran all over New York…were amazing photographic vantage points that no longer exist. So many of them were taken from 25 feet off the ground,” he says. “That is just an amazing place to shoot a building. It gets you above the traffic, it gets you above people, but not so high up that it’s a rooftop view. It renders the target…in a very natural and flattering perspective.” Joseph was left to replicate that perspective as best he could with a monopod, “really like a window-washer’s stick that I attached a photo mount too. Then I rigged up some remote triggers so I could fire the camera from holding a stick 10 feet about my head.” (Joseph also used his connections to developers and real estate brokers to get some of his shots from within other buildings.)

The book also gave Joseph the opportunity to do a little aerial photography, with a helicopter shoot of lower Manhattan. The goal was to replicate a photo that was probably taken from an airplane c. 1935—the result is the then-now pairing above.

Aside from that photo of lower Manhattan, downtown is underrepresented in the book, Joseph says, because most of the century-old photos of New York were taken by commercial architectural photographers, and there wasn’t much call for them to take photos of residential buildings. Instead, the photos of residential areas are snapshots, incorporating streets more than buildings. Still, Joseph thinks there may be material there for a future edition of the book, and we look forward to it.

I’ve always been fascinated by this concept. Once buildings disappear, people tend to forget about them and, of course, new generations have difficulty picturing what was there before. What was once a common streetscape known to thousands (or potentially millions in big cities) simply disappears. Skylines can change quickly as well.

Photography projects like these can also help residents and others get a quick view of urban change. While certain changes get a lot of attention (like the Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago), smaller changes frequently take place and may not be noticed until a whole series of changes occur.

A few years ago, I remember seeing an aerial black and white photograph of Lake Shore Drive crossing the Chicago River. In this photo, Lake Shore Drive still had its famous S-curve (see here) and there weren’t many big buildings in the immediate area. This area has been transformed quite a bit throughout Chicago’s history: it was once a railroad and dock area along the Chicago River that in recent years has become a center for condominiums (like the Aqua building which attracted attention after opening in 2010) and office buildings after Lake Shore Drive being moved closer to the lake. I spent a lot of this with this photo and thinking how much had changed in just several decades.


Seeing sociology in the US men’s national soccer team coaching change

A number of articles have noted the new approach of the new coach of the US men’s national soccer team, Jurgen Klinsman. But this is the first one I’ve seen that suggests Klinsman’s outlook is sociological in nature:

What Klinsmann’s hiring is really about is the big picture, about where soccer is going in the United States, how it will be played and by whom?

It is a grand experiment that is as much about sociology and psychology as it is soccer, and one that promises to be — even to Klinsmann — at least as interesting as whatever happens on the field.

“I deeply believe that soccer, in a certain way, reflects the culture of a country,” Klinsmann, who since 1988 has lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said at his introductory news conference. “You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? It is important over the next three years, especially in the beginning, that I have a lot of conversations with people engulfed in the game here to find a way to define style. What suits us best?”

The question of style posed by Klinsmann — one of the few people with the gravitas and wherewithal to carry such a debate from his perch — isn’t simply about aesthetics. It is about empowerment.

Some Americans might think that having a “national soccer style” might seem odd (is there a “national football style”?) but other countries have such approaches. How exactly cultural values match up with soccer play would be interesting to look at in more depth. Are the explanations that the team fits the values simply post-hoc explanations? (A similar argument: the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers play a particular style of football – tough, good defense, hard running, etc. – because of the industrial cities in which they started.) I suspect a “national style” works because it is meaningful and traditional (and perhaps successful), rather than necessarily more true than other possible styles.

Part of the issue raised by Klinsman (and hinted at in this article) is the culture of US soccer that seems to privilege a particular path related to race and social class: going to expensive sports academies as teenagers and then going to college. Few, if any, other countries follow this route. This is a structural issue: how could the path to playing for the USMNT be altered to open it up to more players, particularly those who can’t afford or don’t want to pursue the “typical” route? As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, these certain structural advantages help some and not others.

A lot is being asked of Klinsman and cultural changes are difficult to make. But it sounds like Klinsman has some ideas about what to do and US soccer seems to be at a point where people realize it needs to take “the next step.” It will be interesting to watch how the Klinsman sociological experiment goes.

Green nimbyism

NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes are typically associated with suburban sprawl and McMansions. So what happens when NIMBY is associated with more eco-friendly projects?

Nimbyism is nothing new. It’s even logical sometimes, perhaps not always deserving of opprobrium. After all, it is one thing to be a passionate proponent of recycling, and another to welcome a particular recycling plant — with the attendant garbage-truck traffic — on your street. General environmental principles may be at odds with convenience or even local environmental consequences.

But policymakers in the United States have been repeatedly frustrated by constituents who profess to worry about the climate and count themselves as environmentalists, but prove unwilling to adjust their lifestyles or change their behavior in any significant way…

Robert B. Cialdini, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University who studies environmental behaviors, points to two phenomena:

Humans hew to the “normative” behaviors of their community. In places where bike lanes or wind turbines or B.R.T. systems are seen as an integral part of society, people tend not protest a new one; if they are not the norm, they will. Second, whatever feelings people have about abstract issues like the environment, in practice they react more passionately to immediate rewards and punishments (like a ready parking space) than distant consequences (like the threat of warming).

Based on Cialdini’s ideas, perhaps it will just take one or two of these neighborhoods or locations adopting these projects so that it becomes normative. But who will be willing to go first? And what is the critical mass when such developments become normal?

While some might take this as evidence that certain people aren’t willing to sacrifice for green projects, I think we can take a broader view: in general, Americans don’t like two things that could possibly occur with the construction of something nearby.

1. The state in which they purchased their home or housing unit is altered. The idyllic scene they once bought into may not last forever. Whether this is due to a nearby condo building blocking the view or a new subdivision taking away a once-open field, Americans do not these sorts of changes. They paid money for a particular setting and want to maintain that setting as long as possible.

2. Their property values might be reduced. Because of the amount of money invested in homes plus hopes that many have about making at least some money when selling their homes somewhere down the line plus the amenities that come in living in places with higher property values, property values drive a lot of development decisions.

Developments like these green projects can be difficult to push through, particularly when those in opposition have money or status. Research has shown that typical dirty types of development, like power plants or landfills or public housing projects, tend to get placed in poorer areas where the people are less-equipped to fight back. Could these green projects be headed for similar places?

What to do when development projects, such as HSR, encounter opposition from residents

This is a common story: a developer, community, or a set of politicians put forth plans for a new development. Some residents or citizens complain that the project will negatively affect them. What is to be done to balance out their concerns versus the plans that have been made? How do we balance the rights of the individual versus the needs of the community?

This is taking place currently in California as state officials continue to move forward with plans for high-speed rail (HSR). According to The Infrastructurist, there are several fronts for complaints: one community suggests the high-speed rail will alter the character of their community and farmers are unhappy that some of their land will split by the tracks.

Within this debate, several themes emerge:

1. A longer and/or bigger view helps provide perspective. In the California case, the start of HSR in the Central Valley looks like a boondoggle because it doesn’t yet connect the largest cities in the state. But it is the start of a network that will expand and eventually provide 2.5 hour travel from San Francisco to LA.

1a. This might help: show that the funding for the later stages in the project, where the Central Valley start is connected at both ends to larger cities, is guaranteed. Otherwise, there might be some worry that this first part will get built and the later funding will dry up or disappear.

2. The time for debate about whether HSR rail is good or appropriate for California is over – it is going forward, particularly since there are Federal dollars committed to this. Yes, these farmers and communities may be affected but they are not going to be able to stop the whole project (unless, perhaps, they get a whole lot more people on their side).

3. The key for those promoting HSR is that they need to continue to focus on the benefits that will come. Some of this is through city revitalization as the HSR serves as a new economic engine. More broadly, it will benefit the state in terms of reducing traffic, provide a quicker form of transportation that flying, and be greener. Yes, people will complain that these are just guesses but then the promoters need to follow through and ensure that HSR actually does benefit the state.

4. Change is not easy. Even if all Californians agreed that HSR was good and it should be pursued, there are always issues regarding making it happen. This is a long-term project that will affect a number of people. The hope is that in the end, it will lead to more good than harm.

Thinking about gentrification and preserving neighborhoods

Megan McArdle discusses gentrification and whether “hip” (my term) or diverse urban neighborhoods can remain that way.

In reality, most neighborhoods (urban or suburban) change over time. This can happen quite rapidly in urban neighborhoods: new people move and businesses move in or out and places can be transformed in a decade or two. Gentrifying neighborhoods are always teetering on an edge where they recently were poorer but are now hip but soon could be more stodgy middle- to upper-class enclaves. It is probably rare that neighborhoods can stay in a perpetual state of gentrification because there are numerous forces pushing a neighborhood one way or another.

I wonder if arguments about wanting to preserve diverse urban neighborhoods are not that different from suburban NIMBY arguments. In each case, people who have moved into the neighborhood see something they like: perhaps good schools in the suburbs, a “hip” and diverse scene in the urban neighborhood. But then the goal can become to freeze that neighborhood in time, to resist outside forces, to try to keep the neighborhood in the state in which it was originally found. The mindset can be “I found this neighborhood and I don’t want anyone else to come in and change it from what I fell in love with.” In both contexts, this is difficult to do: time passes, the people in the neighborhood change, outside forces influence the neighborhood, and so on.

Perhaps one way to get around these sort of arguments is to suggest that the act of moving into a neighborhood (by a resident or a business) is an act with consequences: moving in necessarily contributes to changing the neighborhood. By living in a neighborhood and interacting with residents and others, the new member of the community helps push the neighborhood in a new direction. Whether this new direction is good or bad, moral or immoral, is another issue.

h/t Instapundit