An equine-assisted psychotherapist, a well-known organic farmer and a Rockefeller are among 34 people named in a bizarre real estate lawsuit that could delay Google’s long-awaited Silicon Valley expansion.
The suit centers on 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 origins of the legal battle stretch back to just before the Civil War.
In February 1861, three men bought 300 acres of farmland next to San Jose. Frederick Billings was a lawyer who went on to manage 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 California 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 Wagons”) and eventually merged and subdivided it. But when they sold out some curbside, they took the unusual step of ending the packages at the curb. The roads between the lots still belonged to Billings, Peachy and Naglee.
Time passed and San Jose prospered. Houses replaced farms and the Rancho de los Coches was gradually absorbed into the growing town. Streets were built and a narrow-gauge railway yard developed into Diridon Station, soon an important transport hub. Around it, industrial buildings appeared, followed in the age of the car by parking lots and retail.
In 2014, with the rundown area at odds with Silicon Valley’s immaculate campuses, San Jose implemented a development plan who envisioned a high-density urban village with offices, housing and community facilities.
It was just the opportunity Google had been waiting for. The company began acquiring 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 add hotel rooms; a conference center; and 15 hectares of squares, parks and paths to the city. The San Jose City Council unanimously approved the multibillion dollar project last June.
There was just one problem: four unsold road parcels left over from Billings, Peachy and Naglee’s subdivision over 150 years earlier.
Two of the parcels are long and thin – measuring about a hectare. Google hopes to build a parking structure underneath one. The third, on what is now Barack Obama Boulevard, is one-tenth of an acre. The fourth, tucked away in a dusty cul-de-sac, is only the size of four ping-pong tables. The legal status of all four grounds is unclear.
Google points to parts of the California Civil Code as confirmation that it, or possibly the city of San Jose, owns the parcels, their bike lanes, parking lots and asphalt. But the company remains concerned about legal challenges from across the grave.
“Writing legal descriptions was much less of a science back then,” says Nanci Klein, director of real estate for the city. “To my knowledge, Google’s extensive historical research has not yielded anyone who could meet the criteria to check the property.”