Family resists Google’s campus sprawl despite offer to buy farm for millions


Bay Area family is holding on to its ramshackle farmstead in the heart of Google’s sprawling headquarters despite reason to believe it has been offered $5m to $7m by the tech giant for the tiny patch of land.

The land – which is home to battered pickups, a crumbling ice house, and a handful of renters – is now surrounded on all sides by the tech company’s more than 25-acre campus in Mountain View, California.

Measuring less than an acre, the property is also home to fig, tangerine, avocado and ancient pepper trees, many of which were planted and harvested by the late patriarch of the family, Victor Molinari, who died five years ago.

His surviving relatives appear disinclined to sell.

“Right now we’re living,” said Leonard Martinelli, 49. “We don’t need the money. Right now it’s not for sale.” His sister, Sandra Martinelli Bilyeu, 43, added: “If we keep it, we keep our history.”

But it is not only the family’s history that is being preserved.

Silicon Valley may now be synonymous with tech behemoths such as Google, Apple and Facebook, but not so long ago it was miles of lush farm fields where plums, cherries and tomatoes grew in abundance.

Although Silicon Valley has been generous to the point of extravagance in preserving its own history – the massive Computer History Museum is almost exactly one mile away from the farmstead – the industry and its supporters have been less enthusiastic about memorializing anything before the advent of high tech.

“I don’t think anyone sees any historic significance” in the property, said Mountain View city councilman Leonard Siegel. “Eventually all these properties are going to go. There’s nothing unique about them.”

“It’s not as if the Golden Era of Mountain View was when it was agricultural,” added Siegel, who describes himself as a professional environmental advocate. “Silicon Valley’s strength is its permanent sense of evolution.”

That sentiment was called “unfortunate and not surprising” by Brian Grayson of the valley’s preservation action council. “The fabric of a community comes from what happened here. Newcomers have no connection to why we came here except for more jobs. That’s it for them.”

Those newcomers have transformed the agricultural land south of San Francisco into one of the most expensive swaths of real estate in the world, and the Martinelli family has witnessed the value of its land rocket.

“That land is worth probably $5m-7m,” according to Myron Von Raesfeld, a leading real estate expert in the valley and former president of the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors. “I have reason to believe they’ve been offered that kind of money from Google.”

Google declined to respond to inquiries about the attempted purchase of the property.

A Google employee bikes in front of the Martinellis’ property at 1851 Charleston Road, in the middle of the Google campus.
A Google employee bikes in front of the Martinellis’ property at 1851 Charleston Road, in the middle of the Google campus. Photograph: Ramin Talaie for the Guardian

The Martinelli clan no longer reside at the farmstead, which has been gradually surrounded by the tech giant’s campus, known as Googleplex, which provides offices for about 20,000 employees.

Instead, it is now home to a handful of eclectic renters such as Mihail Kivachitsky, a self-described artist who declined to be interviewed but makes a living as a carpenter.

Victoria Martinelli, 79, one of the elders of the Martinelli clan and the late Victor Molinari’s sister, remembers working the vegetable rows and learning to drive on a tractor in the fields during childhood summer vacations. She gave the Guardian a recent tour of the property.

She glanced at a weathered shed, recalling how, about 70 years ago, her family built it and a now ruined barn. The latter included a place to keep the produce cold before trucking it to the San Francisco produce markets.

“That was in 1946, maybe 1947,” Victoria Martinelli recalled. “That’s where they washed the fruit before it went on the truck. The shelves are where we stored the onions.”

While her children appeared reluctant to let go of the family’s farm, Victoria Martinelli was more ambivalent. “We don’t know,” she said, noting that there were “lots of grandchildren” and endowing them with financial independence deserves consideration.

Should the family change its mind and relinquish its farmstead, Google would extend its formidable imprint on Mountain View – resigning to history the bucolic fields that have since turned to concrete.

“It’s a pretty much amazing-looking place right here in the middle of all this,” said Rob Carr, a young Google software engineer walking by the old farmhouse. “I can see the value in saving it. But I also believe property should be used.”

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