As Google soars, a mobile home park feels the heat

Submitted by News Desk on Sun, 03/22/2015 - 2:57pm

By Matt O'Brie

MOUNTAIN VIEW -- If Google gets to build a new office complex north of Highway 101, no one will feel the "Googly" aura of the canopied tech wonderland quite like the people living along Space Park Way.

The Santiago Villa mobile home park, built in Silicon Valley's infancy, has weathered the booms and busts of its high-tech neighbors. Companies surrounding the park rose to greatness, plummeted to collapse and were replaced by upstarts, all without altering the palm-lined landscape of these factory-built homes.

But in the latest boom, residents are feeling more than ever like they're living in a company town. It's not just the five-story glass office tower, built for Google and nearly complete, that now shadows some of the mobile homes, or the zanier buildings on the way. It's the Googlers, dozens of them, who are settling inside the park.

"As I was signing the papers, I thought, 'Do I really want to buy a double-wide as my first home?' " said Jason Holt, an engineer for the secretive Google X laboratory who moved in two years ago.

His answer was a resounding yes. The park's 358 units are the only housing between the freeway and San Francisco Bay, the only place where a Googler can walk to work instead of joining the thousands of commuters who clog the route to Mountain View's North Bayshore district each morning. Holt is eschewing the city life that draws thousands of his colleagues to live in San Francisco and shuttle in on coach buses equipped with Wi-Fi. He's befriended neighbors by baking them bread.

Not everyone is welcoming the Google influx.

"It used to be idyllic living here," said Roy King, a retired Stanford psychiatrist who lives in a bright blue home on Space Park Way.

Google was a 40-person search engine startup when it settled in Mountain View in 1999. It now has more than 55,000 workers worldwide, a third of them here. Just outside the mobile home park's borders, the Internet giant has bought or leased more than 80 properties, including its longtime headquarters, known as the Googleplex, and a string of low-rise buildings.

Some could now be razed as part of the company's ambitious plans for a huge campus expansion.

"I'm a physician, so the analogy is like a cancer, gobbling up all the neighboring buildings," King said.

Space rent -- what owners of mobile homes pay each month for the land their houses sit on -- is skyrocketing as the park, once reserved for older adults, now appeals to young tech workers and their families.

King's grumblings were interrupted on a recent morning by a young man who pedaled down Space Park Way on a multicolored street bike, one of the hundreds that Google lets its employees ride for free around its sprawling campus. The bicyclist, Google engineer Alexander Brown, stopped by to chat, disarming King with his gregarious optimism.

[The Santiago Villa mobile home park sits in the shadow of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, March 16, 2015. Residents at]
The Santiago Villa mobile home park sits in the shadow of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, March 16, 2015. Residents at Santiago Villa have found their neighborhood wedged inside a rapidly growing technology district as they are surrounded by development from Google and Microsoft. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group) ( Gary Reyes )

"It's cheaper than most apartments and a close commute," Brown said about why he moved into a mobile home down the street. "And with really nice neighbors."

To be sure, proximity to cutting-edge technology is nothing new for residents of the 50-year-old mobile home park. Its main street, Space Park Way, gets its name from the NASA Ames Research Center that towers in the distance. Behind that are the 1930s-era naval airship hangars at Moffett Field.

Experimental aircraft still buzz overhead and NASA's whooshing wind tunnels are occasionally heard. And next month, Google plans to take over the old airfield and refurbish the hangars to further its research on self-driving cars, delivery drones and high-altitude Internet balloons.

Many residents are skeptical about Google's pledge to add so many new workers without making traffic worse. Of the four translucent, tent-like canopies Google hopes to build, the closest would abut Space Park Way, less than 400 yards from the mobile home park.

The expansion would resemble Santiago Villa in at least one way: the impermanence of its buildings. Much like modular homes that can be split in half, trucked out and replaced when they get too old, Google has envisioned office structures that can adjust and move around as they adapt to the company's needs.

[Buck Cox, 80, is photographed in his home at the Santiago Villa mobile home park in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, March 16, 2015. Residents at Santiago]
Buck Cox, 80, is photographed in his home at the Santiago Villa mobile home park in Mountain View, Calif., on Monday, March 16, 2015. Residents at Santiago Villa have found their neighborhood wedged inside a rapidly growing technology district as they are surrounded by development from Google and Microsoft. Cox has lived at Santiago Villa since 1981. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group) ( Gary Reyes )

Google is offering the city a pot of amenities if Mountain View allows the office expansion, including funding Santiago Villa's first playground. It also proposes a publicly accessible campus with plazas and meandering pathways lined with shops and cafes. It's competing for a finite amount of developable land with neighbors including LinkedIn and Microsoft, whose campus sits just south of the mobile home park.

Google also wants to build new housing, but the city has banned residential development in the office district. That restriction soon could be reversed by a new City Council majority with a pro-housing outlook, so Google has left room to build workforce housing if plans change.

Median single-family home prices in Mountain View hit $1.5 million last month, according to CoreLogic DataQuick. Median rents in the suburb are $2,600, according to Real Facts.

Word of the affordable home options at Santiago Villa began spreading around the Google campus a few years ago.

"It's a younger crowd, 20s to 30s, about a third of them have kids," said real estate agent Mara Salomon, who has sold mobile homes to at least 10 Googlers in the past three years. Homes that sold in the five digits three years ago are now at least $120,000. One 3-bedroom mobile home was on sale last week for $250,000.

Buck Cox, 80, who has lived in the park since 1981 and runs a monthly bingo night in the clubhouse, has watched the vibe of his neighborhood change over the years.

Cox is not happy that a newly built Google office overlooks his 12-foot-wide Champion home. He's also a little sad that the shuffleboard and horseshoe courts are always empty these days, a reflection of a younger, busier demographic with different interests. But it cheers him to see more children. And he appreciates that the Googlers are trying to be more engaged with their neighbors. On Monday, he said, one of the Google parents knocked on his door, welcoming him to a community meeting to talk about the new campus plans.

Contact Matt O'Brien at 408-920-5011. Follow him at Twitter.com/Mattoyeah.

mobrien@mercurynews.com