In Silicon Valley, Plans for a Monument to Silicon Valley

In Silicon Valley, Plans for a Monument to Silicon Valley

SAN JOSE, Calif. — 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 gives final approval to 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.

“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?

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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

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