Silicon Valley Leadership Group seeks to banish “twin demons”

SAN JOSE — Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s moniker is a mouthful and might be unfamiliar, yet the organization has helped some household names such as BART and Google find their way to downtown San Jose.

The leadership group, a trade association representing hundreds of Silicon Valley businesses in trying to shape public policy, is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Its members include large and small businesses from the tech sector, but also health care providers, airlines, universities, professional sports teams, banks, accounting firms, development-related businesses, and more.

A number of Bay Area business and political leaders credit the leadership group with spearheading some of the most dramatic transportation and transit improvements in the South Bay, and perhaps the entire Bay Area.

Yet despite many successes, the leadership group acknowledges its work in tackling the Valley’s most egregious problems is far from finished.

“Some of the foundation issues of the organization were the twin demons of traffic and housing,” said Carl Guardino, chief executive officer of Silicon Valley Leadership Group since 1997. “And guess what: We’ve accomplished a lot, but 40 years later, the twin demons facing our region are traffic and housing.”

The organization’s first major effort created the financing to build a freeway, Highway 85, where none existed between south San Jose and Mountain View. Some of its most recent efforts have helped to set the stage for transforming Diridon Station, a downtown San Jose transit complex, into one that some believe will evolve into a Grand Central Station of the West. Google is in talks with San Jose officials about buying city-owned properties as part of a massive land assembly in the area to potentially build a huge tech campus near the station that could house up to 20,000 employees.

“Through our group’s guidance, BART will be coming to San Jose and Silicon Valley,” Guardino said. “It was done through three local ballot campaigns, and we were the decisive vote for both state and federal funding for BART.”

Peter Giles, the first head of the leadership group, then known as Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group, recalls how approval of an early ballot measure bolstered construction through one of California’s crucial freeway gaps, extending State Route 85 between Cupertino and south San Jose. That measure also reshaped State Route 237 as a full freeway with interchanges and ushered in numerous improvements to U.S. Highway 101.

“Without the group, we probably would never have gotten voter approval to fund Highway 85, and had that not happened, there would not have been a way for the West Valley to be accessible,” Giles said. “The success of Measure A not only created the infrastructure for Highway 85, it also created the precedent and the formula for transportation and transit financing measures throughout the Bay Area and even the state.”

Labor unions that represent Valley workers have found common ground with the leadership group at times — but a natural tension can still exist with the business organization.

“They are like any of these other business groups,” said Mike Henneberry, political director with United Food & Commercial Workers Local 5, based in San Jose. “When you can work with them, you work with them on one issue. It’s good to try to cross the bridge with them, but once you get to the other side, you still have your differences.”

Launched in 1977 at a lunch in Palo Alto organized by legendary tech entrepreneur and mogul David Packard, the organization was officially founded in 1978 as Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. The name was eventually changed in 2005. The original meeting was a lunch for 33 top executives, including Packard. Now, the group has 365 members.

Bay Area News Group is one of Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s member companies.

“No organization in the state has had a bigger impact in areas of critical importance to our Valley — from affordable housing to transportation to education to economic competitiveness — than Silicon Valley Leadership Group,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “I know I’m not the first mayor of this or any other city to believe that my job would be far more difficult if Carl Guardino and SVLG were not doing the heavy lifting they do every day to improve quality of life in our region.”

The leadership group, in the view of former San Jose Mayor Thomas McEnery, has bolstered the South Bay economy without bulldozing the green elements that some residents believe are vital to the area’s attractiveness.

“They are bridging the gap between quality of life and economic vitality,” McEnery said. “The group has greatly helped the people who live in this valley to be more poised and ready to be very successful in the 21st century.

Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said the group’s greatest successes have been in spurring transit and transportation upgrades, but the greatest setbacks have been in prodding construction of housing that’s sufficient to accommodate a steadily expanding workforce.

“They have had the least success in housing because they are truly paddling upstream in California to get more housing built,” Reed said. “The entire state is structured in such a way as to discourage more housing. Silicon Valley is way behind as a region in creating more housing.”

And despite the group’s best efforts, clogged roadways continue to plague commuters.

Traffic was a mess decades ago, when Giles frequently warned of the “jobs-housing imbalance” as a way of describing the concentration of tech companies, jobs and workers in cities such as Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Santa Clara. The housing has been built mainly in San Jose, and primarily the southern sections of the Bay Area’s largest city.

Today, a flood of morning traffic flows heads north on highways 101, 280 and 85, west on 237, and south on interstates 880 and 680, while a barely visible counter-commute heads in the other direction. Then, the opposite happens in the evening.

The lack of new home construction has exacerbated the problem by forcing many workers to move farther from their employers to find affordable housing, causing steadily worsening commutes.

Yet Guardino indicated he still has plenty of passion for the leadership group’s endeavors and the challenges that remain.

“Am I making a difference? Do I enjoy what I’m doing? Do I respect and value the people with whom I’m working? And am I continuing to learn? As long as I can answer all four of those affirmatively on a weekly basis, then I’m in the right place. And I believe I’m in the right place,” Guardino said.

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