Since San Jose sold 11 acres of public land to Google for its $272 million campus, worry over the tech titan’s involvement in policy making decisions continues to escalate.
Not long after the search engine giant announced plans to expand into San Jose, the city began exploring raising downtown building heights, a move that some say was sparked by the corporation’s investment in the Diridon Station area. The city hired a consultant, Landrum & Brown, to study the possibilities of building taller in downtown San Jose and around the Diridon area.
Opponents of the plan, including some airport commissioners, said increasing building heights in downtown would cut into the airspace around the city airport and force airlines to reduce weight by bumping off passengers, resulting in economic losses.
Commissioners questioned Google’s involvement in shaping the taxpayer-funded study and swaying its outcome, which supported the city and airport executives’ plan to build taller.
The answer, they claim, was found buried in the city contract with consultant Landrum & Brown. The documents required the contractor to host conference calls to provide “briefing and updates” to the city and a “Project Spartan consultant” and called for calculating “economic impacts that may be directed by the Project Spartan Team.”
The study and contract documents included the names of private companies and stakeholders but did not include Google’s name.
It turns out that “Project Spartan” was Google all along.
“We didn’t know that Google was a big part of this contract, which seems a little odd,” said airport commission chairman Dan Connolly, adding that the discovery was made by fellow commissioner Cathy Hendrix. “Sure seems to me that Google’s identity in this endeavor was being concealed.”
According to Connolly, pilots or airport commissioners were not consulted for the committee or provided the study documents until they requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. “We’re supposed to be the advising body,” Connolly added. “They’re not interested in hearing the airport commission.”
But airport and city leaders said there’s nothing unusual or nefarious about using a pseudonym — Project Spartan — for Google. The tech company often refers to its projects by different names to protect its identity from driven up market values when buying land for new developments.
Google’s press team did not respond to a request for comment.
“In this case, the reference to Project Spartan was an internal reference,” said Scott Wintner, deputy director of aviation for the Mineta San Jose International Airport.“The city was working closely with Google as a developer.”
Google’s interest in building taller structures in the Diridon Area is known, according to Wintner. Project Spartan was the name of the project, but Wintner asserts that “that was the extent of it.”
“If it appears that Project Spartan was listed without reference to Google, it was for the context of the task order,” added Wintner. “There were times where two people didn’t need to procure the same data. No one from Google was involved in the evaluation or the city committee’s recommendation (of Scenario 4).”
Scenario 4 refers to the measure that would allow the maximum building height limit— the development of taller buildings exceeding up to 35 feet from the current limits in downtown and up to 137 feet in the Diridon Station area. The commission, however, calls for Scenario 10B, which would allow higher height limits around the Diridon Station area but not downtown.
Kim Walesh, San Jose’s director of economic development, said that Project Spartan is an internal name for Google’s project in San Jose and that Google’s involvement did not affect the decision-making process for the suggested recommendation, Scenario 4.
“We weren’t hiding that we were working with Google, in fact it made sense,” said Walesh. “Google has on their team a consultant that was an (one-engine inoperative) expert so we wanted to have their consultant share information with our consultant to make sure we had common understanding of the facts and analysis.”
“I think that at the end of the day what I can say very confidently was that we were talking to Google,” added Wintner. “This was known and public.”
Google has been at the center of scrutiny after the tech giant required 18 San Jose officials to sign non-disclosure agreements about the development deal in downtown.
It also came under fire for operating under a pseudonym in the past — Sharka LLC — when it demanded secrecy from Midlothian, Texas city officials on its massive data development center project last May.
According to The Washington Post, Google’s identity was revealed only after the project’s plan was approved, upsetting communities that are skeptical of the company’s intentions and concerned about negative environmental impacts and the higher cost-of-living from a rapid economic boom.
But Google doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The tech giant currently has laid out a $13 billion plan to sprawl development across the entire country, expecting to, along with other large tech companies such as Amazon, drive the U.S. economy.
The city will vote on raising downtown height limits at the San Jose City Council meeting Tuesday.
Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.