Backlash grows to silicon sprawl in high-tech's citadel

A county and town sue to halt building of a 50,000-person office- park 'city.'

It's always been difficult to know where Silicon Valley starts, or ends.

Traveling south to Coyote Valley, though, a passage occurs. Suburban tract developments and sprawling office parks suddenly give way to rolling hills of brown grass and oak trees.

Here, high technology gives way to the American West.

But with bulldozers revving up, this reminder of what all of Silicon Valley used to look like is about to disappear.

Cisco Systems, a maker of Internet hardware and - for a period earlier this year - the world's wealthiest corporation, is planning an office development so large it will create a small town of 50,000 people.

And as Silicon Valley readies to gobble up the last large swath of land on its perimeter, there are some surprising reactions.

The dotcom backlash that has rippled through a number of high-tech centers across the country is now showing up in its own home town.

And that backlash is not only raising questions about traffic, housing, and the environment, but also about technology's lasting footprint on society.

If technology represents the cutting edge of American industry, critics ask, why is its approach to land use stuck in the 1970s?

The project follows the "campus" style of development that Silicon Valley has made famous: low-slung office buildings spread across parklike settings, creating a setting that is a cross between a suburban industrial park and a leafy college.

For decades, it worked well in car-centric Silicon Valley, representing a gradual evolution from the rural-then-suburban character of the region.

A Changed Valley

But nowadays, Silicon Valley looks more like Los Angeles during rush hour than the Pleasantville it was a decade ago.

The project, which was approved unanimously by the San Jose City Council, will consume about 700 acres and employ 20,000 workers, making it the company's largest work site. With that number of workers, analysts predict a ripple effect that will quickly develop a small town of 50,000. The project will cost more than $1 billion.

Surrounding counties and cities are in a rage over the development, which they see as driving up housing prices and clogging highways. Several entities, including Monterey County and the town of Salinas are considering legal action to stop the development.

"Housing is getting sprayed out in a 100-mile radius, and people down here are really frightened they're going to get priced out of their own homes," says Gary Patton, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County.

What critics would like is a state-of-the-art development that puts jobs and housing together.

"We'd like to see a model there of what we should do in this new century in terms of land use and housing being all in one place," says Tom Steinbach, director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a critic of the Cisco project. "This project is a traditional technology-style campus that is really irresponsible in terms of land use."

Working together

The alliance has worked with Cisco and developed a plan to preserve open space in the Coyote Valley area. Cisco will donate $3 million and help raise another $100 million to buy and protect undeveloped land.

The Cisco project, which is expected to break ground in December, sits between a commuter rail line and a planned extension of light rail from San Jose, both offering the possibility of workers taking transit to work. Still, the project plans free parking for 22,000 cars, a move critics say is almost certain to encourage more long-distance commuting.

Like many technology office parks, this one will have a range of worker amenities, including cafes, child-care facilities, a fitness center, and even a car wash.

But critics say those amenities no longer represent forward thinking. What is needed is a development with the real things: offices interlaced with restaurants, stores, entertainment, and housing, creating a real community, not an ersatz one.

For its part, Cisco says it is bringing new, high-paying jobs to an undeveloped part of the region, something that will help, not hurt, Silicon Valley's quality of life.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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