Will Google's Housing Plan Do No Evil?

Google complex Nobody likes a long commute -- especially not the otherwise coddled employees of Google, No.4 on Fortune's 2010 list of 100 Best Companies to Work For. Despite the generous perks enjoyed by the Mountain View, Calif., company's workers, such as free lunch and dinner, on-site medical clinics and subsidized day-care centers, many still put up with inconvenient commutes to Google's remote corporate headquarters.

Now Google is urging Mountain View city officials to change local zoning laws to allow the company to build six- and seven-story housing units in the North Bayshore near Highway 101, Silicon Valley's sclerotic traffic artery. After a tentative nod of support from city planners and council members, the officials reconsidered, citing potential pitfalls such as increased population density and more local traffic. Does Google's housing plan for the future violate the ubiquitous company's mantra "Don't be evil"?

It all depends on who you ask. "Googleplex," as Google's headquarters are affectionately known, is a cluster of three-story buildings erected in the 1990s by Silicon Graphics. As the Internet behemoth has grown, it has engulfed other office buildings in the surrounding area. But the area near Google is zoned only for commercial use, making any Google housing plan an impossibility without changes. Google currently provides free shuttle-bus service to employees commuting from San Francisco, but supporters argue that new housing near the campus would cut down on car traffic and public transit needs.

Once spurned by the city of Mountain View, Google issued a letter, saying in part, "We encourage you to provide opportunities for the North Bayshore area to continue to be the center of sustainable development for Google's HQ campus." Some environmentalists have argued that new housing in the area would encourage people to bike and walk instead of drive. Others point to the fact that there are currently only two access roads in and out of the area.

Mountain View officials are already studying ways to improve the pedestrian experience and get ready for high-speed rail. And the city has benefited greatly from Google's presence -- the assessed value of Google's taxable property grew 481 percent during the period of 2005 to 2009 to $739 million. Even in last year's terrible market, the value of land in Mountain View rose 6.2 percent, most of that rise attributable to Google's presence in the community. It's not hard to imagine the cost of Google-proximate housing breaking through the already sky-high stratosphere. Will anybody but Google employees be able to afford it?

Also, Googlers should eye with more than a little suspicion an employer who wants them to live right near the office. After all, if you can walk to work, where do you think your workaholic boss will expect you to spend most of your time?

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