The Surprising Fight Over Google’s Downtown West Development
An equine-assisted psychotherapist, a renowned organic farmer, and a Rockefeller are among 34 people named in a bizarre real estate case that could delay Google’s long-awaited Silicon Valley expansion.
The suit centers around the disputed ownership of four small patches of roadway in San Jose, where Google wants to build a futuristic campus for tens of thousands of workers. But the origin of the legal battle stretches back to just before the Civil War.
In February 1861, three men bought 300 acres of farmland adjoining San Jose. Frederick Billings was a lawyer who went on to lead the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Archibald Peachy had come to California as a prospector during the Gold Rush, before becoming a developer and politician.
The most famous of the three, Henry Morris Naglee, was known as the “father of Californian brandy” for planting vineyards in the area and later served as a union general during the Civil War.
The men called their purchase Rancho de los Coches (“Ranch of the Carriages”) and eventually platted and subdivided it. But when they sold off some roadside lots, they took the unusual step of ending the parcels at the curbside. The roadways between the lots still belonged to Billings, Peachy, and Naglee.
Time passed and San Jose prospered. Houses replaced farms, and Rancho de los Coches was gradually absorbed into the growing city. Streets were constructed, and a narrow-gauge railyard evolved into Diridon Station, soon a major transportation hub. Around it popped up industrial buildings, followed in the automotive age by parking lots and retail.
In 2014, with the run-down area at odds with Silicon Valley’s spotless campuses, San Jose implemented a development plan that envisioned a high-density urban village with offices, residences, and community facilities.
It was just the opportunity Google had been waiting for. The company began buying up properties and in 2019 proposed an 80-acre mixed-use neighborhood called Downtown West. Not only would Downtown West provide office space for 20,000 Googlers, it would house local residents and nonprofits, as well as adding hotel rooms; a conference center; and 15 acres of plazas, parks, and trails to the city. The San Jose City Council unanimously approved the multibillion-dollar project last June.
There was just one problem: four unsold parcels of roadway left over from Billings, Peachy, and Naglee’s subdivision over 150 years earlier.
Two of the parcels are long and skinny—measuring about an acre. Google hopes to build a parking structure beneath one. The third, on what is now Barack Obama Boulevard, is a tenth of an acre. The fourth, tucked away in a dusty dead end, is only as big as four ping-pong tables. The legal status of all four plots is murky.
Google points to sections of California civil code as confirmation that it, or possibly the city of San Jose, owns the parcels, their bike lanes, parking spots, and asphalt. But the company remains worried about legal challenges from beyond the grave.
“Writing up legal descriptions was far less of a science back in the day,” says Nanci Klein, director of real estate for the city. “To my knowledge, Google’s extensive historical research did not yield anyone who could meet the criteria of controlling the property.”