At a crowded meeting of the Santa Clara City Council last summer, residents spoke in quavering voices, their arms trembling as they tried to suppress their anger over a plan by Sun Microsystems, one of the area's largest employers, to build a new R&D facility. One woman read a speech in which she castigated the council members for destroying "open space" to make room for "yet another corporate parking lot." Several critics noted that council members who backed Sun's plan had bragged in campaign material of their support for environmental preservation. "Your integrity is at stake," declared an indignant young man.
Silicon Valley, well-known for both its environmentalist sympathies and its high-tech entrepreneurialism, is discovering what happens when those two tendencies collide. The Valley, which includes parts of Alameda and Santa Cruz counties along with most of San Mateo and Santa Clara, exports more goods than any other metropolitan area in the country. Santa Clara alone is home to such computer industry leaders as 3Com, Applied Materials, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and National Semiconductor. These and other local businesses created 125,000 new jobs between 1992 and 1996.
The growth hasn't come without costs. Freeway congestion throughout the Bay Area begins earlier and lasts longer than ever before. Schools are being taxed to their limits by burgeoning enrollments. Residential and commercial real estate prices are soaring. Santa Clara County's median home price of $308,500 is the highest in the nation. Apartment occupancy levels hover between 99 percent and 100 percent, and it's often difficult to find a hotel room.
Such problems have helped build support for anti-growth--or,
more accurately, anti-building--policies. A large majority of
Valley residents favor open space preservation and urban growth
boundaries, according to a December 1993 phone survey of likely
voters by Gene Bregman and Associates, a national polling firm
in San Francisco. Seventy-four percent of respondents wanted to preserve baylands and wetlands, 69 percent wanted more land set aside for wildlife preservation, and 68 percent wanted to prohibit development on hillsides.
In an October 1995 poll of San Jose residents, 74 percent said the city should adopt a "greenline," defined as a "fixed border between urban development and open space" that "would keep new growth in areas with pre-existing services." The San Jose City Council has since adopted that policy.
Terry Feinberg, executive director of the Tri-County Apartment Association, a developers group, notes that supposedly environment-friendly greenlines push housing to the other side of the boundary, requiring the new development of rural land and keeping cars on the road longer by increasing commuting distances. Restrictions on growth also raise housing costs, exacerbate the housing-to-jobs ratio, and increase traffic congestion by preventing road construction. Not incidentally, these effects make life harder for people who work in the Valley.
Oakland computer programmer Jay Shaw's 10-mile commute to his job in Berkeley already takes more than half an hour. "I'm as much of an environmentalist as the next guy," says Shaw. "I love the outdoors--but not if that means I have to travel at a rate of 20 miles per hour."
Palo Alto financial analyst Todd Parmacek also loves the outdoors, especially the nearby hills and valleys, but he is fed up with the rising cost of living in Silicon Valley. He was forced to give up his search for a house in 1997 because the prices kept rising, and he even had difficulty finding the one-bedroom apartment where he now lives. "Sometimes environmental policies aren't reasonable," he says. "Development can't stop."
I can identify with Parmacek. When my wife accepted a job in Palo Alto a few months ago, we looked forward to saving money on rent, thinking we would have no problem finding a comparable two-bedroom apartment for less than the $1,000 we were paying in New York City. We were wrong. After a few disheartening days, we were relieved to find a one-bedroom apartment for $1,150.
Organizations such as the Greenbelt Alliance and the Sierra Club want to discourage newcomers like my wife and me. They are committed to creating more urban growth boundaries and getting people out of their cars, even if that means restricting jobs and housing. The Sierra Club opposes building new highways or adding new lanes to existing roads if that would facilitate more traffic. "We don't feel we can crowd everyone into this area," says Sierra Club member Aurelia Winsemius. "If we do keep expanding, we'll ruin our air, water, and infrastructure."
Craig Breon, an environmental advocate at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, is a member of an informal environmental network seeking to halt development in the Valley. He drives all over the area speaking at city council, water district board, planning commission, and parks commission meetings. "I get embittered and despondent," says Breon, "and at times get too strident and emotional." He says an Audubon board member is about to resign, and friends and fellow environmentalists are leaving the Valley in disgust. "You can't be around here and not feel the pain," he explains.
Like Breon, the Sierra Club's Bill Michels doesn't like the increasing development and traffic congestion. A native of Palo Alto, he feels betrayed by his city, which he says "created me as an environmentalist." Michels opposes the chemical processes involved in building computers, the environmental laws in the countries where many of them are manufactured, and the use of computers by multinational corporations and the military. He works for Sun Microsystems.
Sun, which has 11,000 employees in the Bay Area, wants to build a 1-million-square-foot, $230 million research and development complex on the site of the former Agnews Developmental Center West Campus in Santa Clara. In November 1996, the company arranged to purchase 82.5 acres of the 331-acre site from the state of California for $51 million. It planned to build nine new buildings for 3,200 workers, incorporate three of the existing structures into the R&D campus, and raze the remaining 54 buildings.
But opponents claimed Agnews is rich in history and should be
preserved. Known as the Agnews State Lunatic Asylum in the 1880s,
it was destroyed and rebuilt after
the 1906 earthquake. An on-site cemetery contains the remains of 119 people who died in the earthquake. More recently, Agnews became a home for the developmentally disabled. The last of its patients moved out in 1995. A homeless shelter operates out of one of the buildings, and the rest have been abandoned.
Liz Holmes and her 19-piece big band ensemble had been using one of the abandoned Agnews buildings to rehearse when she learned Sun was buying the property. Not wanting to see the buildings razed, she spent hundreds of hours fighting Sun's project as a member of the Agnews Preservation Coalition. In addition to attending city hearings, she documented and photographed each building on the property and succeeded in getting the Agnews complex listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which she hoped might confer some legal protection on the buildings. It didn't.