Paris has the Eiffel Tower. St. Louis is inseparable from the Gateway Arch. Seattle boasts the Space Needle. Washington has its Monument.
Silicon Valley wants its own universally recognized landmark, something that symbolizes its power and reach. If the San Jose City Council approves the project this month, an international design competition will be announced this spring. The winning entry could be built on a city park as soon as 2021.
Capturing the tech world in one sculpture or structure or art installation will be a difficult job. The devices and platforms that made Silicon Valley famous were created in low-slung office parks of limited architectural distinction by entrepreneurs who risked their investors’ capital, not their lives. It’s not really an underdog story nor – as many filmmakers have found out – a particularly visual one.
Nor is this the ideal moment for Silicon Valley to celebrate itself. Even as the tech industry prepares for a long-awaited series of public offerings that will mint yet another round of dude billionaires, there is widespread alarm that smartphones and social networks are reshaping society for the worse.
The backers of the San Jose Light Tower Corp., who have raised $1-million to pursue a landmark and expect to raise tens of millions more before it reaches fruition, are undeterred.
“Optimistically, we’re going to receive hundreds of ideas,” Jon Ball, chairman of the Light Tower board, told a skeptical crowd at a community meeting in late February. For the right project, he added, donors would open their wallets very wide. “A great idea at $150-million is sometimes easier to fund than a frankly uninspiring idea at half the price,” he said.
Ball, a retired construction executive, said the idea for a landmark was born a few years ago when he was driving with his wife, Paula, on a local highway. She remarked that if she didn’t know she was in San Jose, she would have no clue. The cityscape lacks any distinction, and the physical setting at the southern edge of San Francisco Bay is less than memorable – especially in contrast to a certain metropolis 50 miles to the northwest.
San Jose has suffered forever from its proximity to San Francisco, which has been heralded since its founding for its charm and beauty. In recent years, the center of tech gravity has shifted north to San Francisco. That has added to the misery of San Jose boosters, who fear the loss of one of the city’s few claims to fame.
“Just a song – that’s all we have,” said Marianne Salas, a longtime San Jose resident who has given $26,000 to the nonprofit landmark effort. She was referring to Dionne Warwick’s 1968 hit, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” It’s a bittersweet tune, about failing to become a star in Los Angeles and then trying to return home.
“You can really breathe in San Jose/ They’ve got a lot of space,” the lyrics run, which shows how things have changed in 50 years. Space is now at a premium in the city. Google is converting an entire downtown neighborhood into offices. The site selected for the landmark project, a park called Arena Green, is on the edge of this development, squeezed between the sports stadium and the highway that splits the city.
Many of the 50 or so people who came to the community meeting seemed to appreciate the sentiments behind the effort – one man spoke eloquently about how when friends came to visit, they immediately wanted to go to San Francisco – but were not keen on Arena Green as the location.
Among the issues they raised: How would this affect the Guadalupe River and Los Gatos Creek, which merge in the park? Would the project strain San Jose’s already strained parks budget? Are there any tax dollars being used here? And wasn’t this the usual Silicon Valley trick of taking a public good – a park – and using it for private purposes?
Ball, with a trace of weariness, provided answers. The project would be given as a gift to the city. No tax money would be involved. He promised accountability, with a seven-member jury selecting three finalists. The Guadalupe River Park Conservancy would monitor for ecological issues. Jodi Starbird, president of the conservancy’s board, stood up to say her group would be “the police” for the project.
The river splits the park. The project could go on the east side, the west side or conceivably straddle the two. The park is on the flight path to San Jose’s airport, which will impose height limits. The location also means that, unlike the iconic landmarks in many cities, this one won’t be visible to the passengers as a plane descends. Just the pilot.
A few hours before the meeting, on a weekday afternoon, Arena Green was largely empty. There was exactly one person on the east side.
“Our intention is to make this park more accessible and actually improve it,” Ball said. While another Eiffel Tower is literally and probably figuratively out of reach, there is a useful precedent in Chicago’s Cloud Gate, a 110-ton stainless steel bean beloved by selfie-taking tourists. The bean was installed in 2004 at the cost of $23-million.
Leslie Berlin, author of “Troublemakers,” a history of Silicon Valley, said the project was intriguing but full of potential pitfalls.
“When we hear the words ‘Silicon Valley,’ we think strictly in terms of private enterprise,” she said. “All the landmarks that tourists go to are literally companies. Everything is identified with the profit motive. By building a place for everybody, this could put the public back into the equation.”
She added, however, that “it’s hard to do this sort of thing by fiat – ‘I’m going to make something that the rest of world recognizes as a masterpiece.’ And if in the process of trying to celebrate Silicon Valley they make the same mistakes that are giving Silicon Valley such a bad reputation now, the result will mean nothing to no one.”
The Light Tower project got its name because it began as an attempt to replicate San Jose’s previous monument to a new form of technology. In 1881 that was electricity, and a local entrepreneur raised money and built his vision in less than a year. Owen’s Electrical Tower was 207 feet tall with six arc lamps that illuminated the city. Visible from San Francisco, it achieved a modest amount of fame.
The tower had its own ecological issues. At one point in 1900, clouds of beetles attacked it. This brought hordes of birds to feast on the bugs. The birds collided with the live electrical wires and fell to the ground. “All the stray cats in the neighborhood were attracted and the feline family had a feast it will long remember,” the San Francisco Call newspaper reported. The tower blew down in a 1915 storm.
“Our concept was we were going to build a modern interpretation of the old light tower,” Ball said. “We did not get a lot of love for that.”
The project has also drawn criticism for a lack of transparency, a fault that the community meeting was designed to help correct. The San Jose City Council is expected to take up the project on March 12. But even if that hurdle is met, Ball conceded, others lie ahead. “We’re not naive,” he said.
Dave Henderson, who leases office buildings for medical professionals, saluted the Light Tower team during the community meeting. “There’s nothing in it for you guys except brain damage,” he said.
Henderson, who has given $30,000 to the project, considered later the chances of whether something would ultimately get built or whether critics would have their way.
“It’s 50-50,” he decided. Most disruptive ideas in Silicon Valley don’t get odds as good as that.