Boulder Planning Board approves Google campus plan — with conditions
“Conditionally,” of course, was the operative word.
“Nobody’s getting exactly what they want,” Planning Board Chairman Aaron Brockett said toward the close of the meeting, just after midnight. “A lot of ground has been given on all sides. But we have a project that, with these modifications, is approvable.”
Google had intended to develop four acres near the intersection of 30th and Pearl streets, through a two-phase development that would require tearing down several structures to build three four-story buildings, and a large underground parking lot, on a campus that could accommodate a local employee base of 1,500. Currently, Google’s Boulder workforce totals about 340.
The company is mostly getting what it wants, but the Planning Board insisted on several stipulations before OK’ing the Pearl Place development by a 5-1 vote.
The City Council, however, can choose to call up the Google site review and take its own vote on the matter.
Chief among the Planning Board’s stipulations was a requirement that Google set back the fourth floor of one of the three buildings, by 60 feet on one side and 30 feet on the other, in an effort to make the top story invisible to passersby.
Some board members had raised concerns earlier in the night about the uniform, four-story height of the campus’ three planned buildings.
The Google team present at Thursday night’s meeting said before the approval that it would be open to varying the height of the buildings. The board discussed the option of having one of the buildings be five stories tall, with the other two buildings reaching three stories each. That discussion was moot, though, by the end of the meeting.
“I think that there’s a perception by some people that a fourth story is too tall in this town,” Brockett said, voicing a side he happened to disagree with, but which is widely held by many others. “What we’re seeing is projects come before us and request a 55-foot height, and there are people who just feel that that’s too tall. It’s not everyone, though.”
Also included in the approval deal was the condition that Google make its transportation demand management plan stricter. Google had planned to have about 600 parking spaces underground, and 300 bike spaces spread across the campus. The company has been asked to incentivize the use of alternative modes of transportation.
The Planning Board briefly tried to make Google discourage driving by charging employees to park in the company’s lot, but that idea was quickly shot down by the consulting team on hand, which made clear that such a policy would be against the values of the company.
Additionally, Google will have to add a pedestrian connection to the west side of the campus.
Potential negative impacts
During the lengthy site review – which for the first five hours seemed destined to end in a continuance, before an hourlong recess reopened the door – members of the Planning Board voiced concern about the project’s potentially negative impacts on housing and traffic.
Because Google cannot speculate on the demographic makeup of a future Boulder employee roster, the company has not submitted any studies to determine whether the new campus — and the hundreds of high-salary, in-commuting employees accompanying it — would cause transit clutter or squeeze out affordable housing options.
“I do not see how this project, as presently formulated, can really address the impact,” board member John Gerstle said, in a comment echoed by several colleagues. “I’m a bit pessimistic that we will get to a point where a majority of us are happy.”
That opinion was also shared by Boulder resident Patrick Dillard, who spoke Thursday during the meeting’s public comment segment.
“This is a stylish new office park that would add hundreds of brand-new, very high-wage workers to our city. This would directly displace hundreds of middle-income residents,” he said. “It would add big new stresses … to our deteriorating housing crisis. Where in this process is the developer and Google accounting for this burden they would place on our city?”
That discussion around the campus aesthetics bled over into another one regarding the ground floor of the buildings. At the moment, there is no plan to introduce any public retail or restaurants at street level. Even though Google aspires to move into Boulder’s busiest commercial district, certain board members found the absence of shopping and dining options as problematic within the pedestrian experience.
“I am totally concerned about the lack of some kind of retail,” board member Crystal Gray said. “Google — I’ve been in their offices and they’re so fun and energetic and just reek of personality — that I just think some kind of retail would really add to that site and would specifically add to 30th Street.
“The one thing that troubles me is it’s not a neighborhood, mixed-use type.”
Board member Liz Payton agreed with Gray’s view that, in its present iteration, the planned campus doesn’t jibe especially well with the city.
“This comprehensive plan policy is about neighborhoods as building blocks. I think this has little relation to its context. Especially in Boulder, it doesn’t seem to relate to much else at all,” Payton said. “It will be a very nice place for the employees, but, as far as addressing the public realm, especially the streetscape, I think it falls short. … I don’t think this is coherent, in that it is this very insular campus, but not relating to the context around it very successfully.”
Still, many in Boulder would argue that the context some board members say Google would clash with is itself in contrast to the city’s long-held identity: South of the proposed campus site is the controversial housing development TwoNineNorth, which some have called gaudy and, at four stories high, unnecessarily tall. Projects such as Boulder Junction and the mixed-use Reve development — which has not yet been approved by the city — are also nearby.
The Google team members made clear that several of the gripes on Thursday, including that around the building heights, were in direct contrast to feedback they’d gotten previously from the Boulder Design Advisory Board, which blessed the project in September.
‘We want to be in Boulder’
However, Scott Green, Google’s Boulder site director, told the board that the company intends to be a positive and visible partner to the city for decades to come.
“When a teenager in Japan buys a Google Play app, they can charge the purchase, and the software systems that make that possible are developed in Boulder,” he said. “When your daughter or your son in BVSD uses Google apps, that software is developed in Boulder. When you pull up Google Earth, the buildings and footprints are things that have been created in Boulder. When Google reminds you it’s your mother’s birthday, that software was written by a team here in Boulder.
“These are critical projects, and they’re big projects. They’re growing, and staying still is not really an option. We’ve grown quite rapidly, and we expect to continue to grow. … Our identity is tied to Boulder. We want to be in Boulder.”
After the meeting, Green said simply: “We are pleased to be moving forward with the new campus project and look forward to working in — and with — Boulder.”
Brockett said he was “relieved.”
“I think it’s an exciting project, and for a company like Google to establish this big of a presence in our town is a real endorsement of who we are as a city,” he said. “We’re trying to build our tech industry here in town, and this is really contributing to that.”