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Google is big man on, off campus

The Internet giant has helped its hometown grow. Some say it hasn't been a model citizen.

October 01, 2007|Jessica Guynn and Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writers

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. — Bracing for an invasion of Google Inc. employees in February after the Internet search giant bought up its office complex, start-up Beyond.com erected a makeshift sign: "I for one welcome our Google overlords."

The one-liner, lifted from an episode of "The Simpsons," captured the ambivalence felt by Mountain View inhabitants over how rapidly Google is taking over their sleepy Silicon Valley community (population 73,000). The same company that blankets the city with free wireless Internet access and funds Mountain View's high-tech bookmobile also clogs the streets with traffic and bothers residents by flying corporate jets overhead.

Never has a Silicon Valley company risen so fast. Only nine years after its inception and three years after going public, Google is the third-most-valuable tech company, behind No. 1 Microsoft Corp. and No. 2 Cisco Systems Inc., thanks to its search engine and other Web services that in its second fiscal quarter generated an average of $43 million in revenue each day.

Since 2004, Google has quintupled its global workforce to nearly 14,000. The modern headquarters here, dubbed the Googleplex, is filled with pets, colorful exercise balls to sit on and nearly every service imaginable.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Google: An article in Section A on Monday about Google Inc.'s growth in Mountain View, Calif., said start-up Beyond.com had erected a sign saying: "I for one welcome our Google overlords." Another start-up, Become.com, had put up the sign. Also, a satellite image accompanying the article labeled Highway 85 as Highway 237.

To many in Mountain View, Google has become a primary source of economic aid, curiosity, inspiration and pride.

After four years of city budget cuts and hiring freezes, Google has helped fuel an economic renaissance. The effect is difficult to quantify, officials say, in part because Google's contributions are growing faster than city tax rolls can reflect.

Two years ago, Google ranked 21st in Santa Clara County for assessed business property -- computers, fax machines and other taxable business equipment. Today it's fourth, behind only Cisco, Intel Corp. and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co.

The Internet giant restored corporate leadership after the dot-com bust, attracting smaller companies that wanted to be close to greatness. Its constant quest for cubicle space has helped shrink the commercial vacancy rate to 10% from nearly 30%.

Google bought more property in the county last year than anyone except for three commercial real estate firms. It's in talks with the city to build a hotel and conference center on the Google side of town, which would help Mountain View realize a long-held dream.

"Google is what pulled us through," said Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a regional planning group.

The company also has injected Mountain View, which sits almost 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, with the kind of energy usually associated with a liberal arts college. Googlers, as they're known, toss Frisbees, glide around campus on bicycles sporting bright orange safety flags and pedal together on company-provided seven-seaters while discussing software code. Tourists snap pictures in front of the Googleplex.

Locals enjoy pranking Google. Public relations firm Eastwick Communications stages team-building contests that challenge employees to sneak into Google's free cafeteria. Bernadette Albrecht, a human resources consultant at Eastwick, won a $50 gift certificate by asking a biking Googler to give her his orange flag.

"He hesitated, but he said they replace them all the time," Albrecht said.

But Mountain View and Google are grappling with town-and-gown issues. Some influential Mountain View residents grumble that Google hasn't been a model corporate citizen: It has escalated the pain of rush hour, displaced small companies to make room for its own troops and raised a ruckus by striking an unusual deal for Google's billionaire cofounders to land their private planes at NASA's nearby Moffett Federal Airfield.

Some residents worry about how disconnected Google seems from the community. The company occupies a private oasis on the other side of Highway 101 from downtown. The city has installed more traffic lights and is considering adding more sidewalks and bicycle lanes on highway overpasses to accommodate Googlers who might want to head downtown.

But Google's stock-option millionaires don't have much reason to patronize local stores and restaurants. To keep employees working hard, the company offers gourmet meals, haircuts, dentist and doctor visits, massage therapy, carwashes and oil changes -- all at the Googleplex. Google also gives free rides to and from work every day aboard 32 shuttle buses that run on biodiesel.

In many ways, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have built the Independent Republic of Google within Mountain View's borders, annexing more of the city as its soaring advertising revenue pays for ambitious corporate expansion. Some fear Google is beginning to dominate the small city the way it dominates the Internet.

"You don't really know what's going on in there," said Kevin Cuneo, who grew up in nearby Redwood City and now works at Eastwick. "It's a huge, growing mass. No one knows when it's going to end."

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