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Regional Interests

Google Plans To Expand Its Campus — Which Might Become Unsafe As Sea Levels Rise

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Google is expanding its campus in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company is planning to build offices as well as housing and green space near the shoreline, which is at risk from rising sea levels. And that's raising the question of whether building there should happen at all. NPR's Lauren Sommer has the story.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: As a city planner in Silicon Valley, Michelle King hears all about one of the biggest headaches in the Bay Area - housing.

MICHELLE KING: Oh, my goodness. Housing here is extremely expensive. Sunnyvale has a very high cost of living.

SOMMER: In May, the median home price in Sunnyvale, where King works, was 1.8 million. So the city is looking at a different kind of housing - higher density, that's walkable to transit and green space. It would go into a part of town called Moffett Park. Right now, it's just offices; lots of low-rise buildings with wide parking lots.

KING: One of the most sustainable things you can do is put people where they work and put people where transit is. So this is a huge opportunity.

SOMMER: This isn't just Sunnyvale's vision. It's shared by one of the largest landowners in Moffett Park - Google. Over the last five years, the company has quietly bought more than 70 properties here, worth almost $3 billion. Jeff Holzman is Google's director of real estate development for Sunnyvale.

JEFF HOLZMAN: We're incorporating sustainability into everything we do in our developments, and we're doing it to support our employees but also the community and, hopefully, the environment.

SOMMER: Sunnyvale is in the process of rezoning the land to allow Google to build new offices and housing. And just to note, Google is one of NPR's financial supporters. And there's one more detail the city is looking at. This land is on the shore of San Francisco Bay, which puts it right in the path of sea level rise.

KRISTINA HILL: Sea level rise has already happened. I mean, we've seen about a foot over the last hundred years.

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SOMMER: Kristina Hill is a professor of environmental planning at UC Berkeley. We're standing on the edge of the bay, where a high tide is coming in. Hill says sea level rise will make these tides even higher, by as much as 7 feet by 2100. But that's not the only problem. There's also seawater in the soil under our feet - the groundwater.

HILL: And as the sea rises, that toe of salt water under the soil is going to rise also.

SOMMER: The groundwater will get closer to the surface, and that can cause flash floods during rainstorms because the ground is already saturated and the runoff has nowhere to go.

HILL: It's like a sponge that's already soaked and full of water. So you can't get any more water into it.

SOMMER: Sunnyvale knows this could be a problem for building in Moffett Park. It's come up at public meetings.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. We have time for one last question.

SOMMER: Residents wanted to know...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Why increase development in the low-lying areas?

SOMMER: City planner Michelle King responded.

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KING: Moffett Park is already heavily developed and is a employment center for the city. So the city has a great interest in making sure that Moffett Park is protected in the future.

SOMMER: That protection would be a new levee built along the shoreline to stop the water. But it's already facing challenges. The first section of levee next door to Sunnyvale has taken 15 years of planning and still isn't under construction. Local agencies have had to come up with an extra 100 million for the projected cost overruns. Protection for Sunnyvale could be decades away and cost half a billion. And that's giving some city council members second thoughts.

RUSS MELTON: Can I get comfortable with housing in the context of sea level rise?

SOMMER: Council member Russ Melton says the city is looking at putting up to 20,000 new housing units in Moffett Park, which would be in a flood zone.

MELTON: Housing - that's where people live. They want to be able to go home and raise their family. So I feel this extra burden to be really judicious on where we allow housing to go.

SOMMER: Before he votes for new development, Melton says he needs assurances that the levee is fully funded and will be built. Google's Holzman says allowing their projects to go forward could do just that.

HOLZMAN: I think that all of Sunnyvale needs to contribute to the solution, and I think we're absolutely going to do our fair share and our part.

SOMMER: He says Google is willing to help pay to build a levee if other businesses do as part of developing Moffett Park.

HOLZMAN: We kind of need projects like Moffett Park and others to move forward so that it creates the economic ability to contribute into these solutions. The problem is going to exist whether we do more things in Moffett Park or not.

A R SIDERS: That's ridiculous and backwards, right? We're going to put people at risk, put families at risk, so that we can change the economics.

SOMMER: A.R. Siders is a professor at the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center. She says while developing in risky areas could help pay for protections, it puts more people at the forefront of disasters.

SIDERS: I think we're setting ourselves up for a future where people think they're safe, and we build in reliance on the infrastructure. But then if we don't maintain it, if we don't continue to pay every single year, it will leave people more at risk than they are now.

SOMMER: Land use tends to get locked in, she says. So whatever decision cities make now, they'll have to ensure those buildings and the people in them can withstand a climate that's changing increasingly fast.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYRON'S "EVERY HIGH - PIANO SOLO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.