Debbie Acosta and Tony Batalla – City of San Leandro, California
The start of San Leandro, California’s, technology revolution can be pin-pointed almost to the day.
In 2011, Dr. Patrick Kennedy, the founder and CEO of OSIsoft, the city’s largest tech company, which specializes in installing its trademarked “PI system” for private companies and public organizations, approached City Hall with an idea to install fiber optics in San Leandro’s existing underground conduit network.
Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter, then a council member, agreed with city staff that the project could be an innovative approach to economic development.
That same year, San Leandro signed a leasing agreement with Kennedy, who then formed Lit San Leandro, a private company responsible for leasing dark fiber to internet service providers. The public-private partnership ultimately enabled OSIsoft, the city and over 250 other San Leandro-based companies to have access to the 10-gigabit network.
“Transforming San Leandro into a center for innovation immediately became one of the city council’s paramount goals, following the launch of the Lit San Leandro fiber optic network,” Cutter says.
In 2012, San Leandro won a $2.12 million matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to expand the network from 10 to 18 miles.
Chief Innovation Officer Debbie Acosta, who was hired to help promote the new fiber network, says that since the city’s initial investment with Kennedy, many new technology companies have relocated to San Leandro to use the new network, bringing jobs, opportunity and a new edge to the northern California suburb that is home to approximately 90,000 residents.
But perhaps the greatest change, says San Leandro’s head of IT, Tony Batalla, is the culture shift that’s swept City Hall.
With more fiber comes more responsibility
Since it was launched, the fiber optic network has also allowed San Leandro to deploy free public Wi-Fi and connect all of its city facilities, including the “world-class” library, various community centers and City Hall.
However, Acosta says her favorite change is the way fiber optics have reinvigorated industrial parts of San Leandro, starting with the former Chrysler Dodge plant, a 720,000-square-foot, two-building complex built in the 1960s. The building had a strong retail presence on the ground floor, but the city couldn’t figure out what the focus should be for the second floor.
In 2014, Lit San Leandro partnered with the building’s owners, Scanlon Kemper Bard, to connect the property to the ultra-fast broadband fiber, raising eyebrows in the real estate community.
“There is a lot of pressure in the Bay Area for industrial areas to go residential, and people didn’t understand what anyone would want with a big empty box,” Acosta says. But she and many others in her department knew that tech startups—particularly those that combined hardware with software—would come clamoring to work in an affordable, flexible and creative space with lightning-fast internet.
The property was renamed Gate 510 and is now 85 percent leased to companies such as PhaseSpace, Airspace, Memphis Meats, Sculpteo and a variety of other businesses focused on drones, virtual reality, clean technology, biotech, advanced manufacturing and software.
San Leandro went through a similar, if more protracted, 10-year process to transform the vacant site of a former cannery into the San Leandro Tech Campus (SLTC), a technology-focused, mixed-use development.
The cannery had been badly damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and had since been demolished, leaving a vacant eight-acre parcel of land adjacent to the downtown San Leandro BART station.
After the development of Lit San Leandro, Kennedy and his development partners at Westlake Urban approached the City with a plan to develop a 500,000-square-foot tech campus, part of which would house OSIsoft’s new global headquarters. The project has since expanded, and once construction wraps up, will be a one million-square-foot, five-building complex, including three Class A buildings, an 850-plus parking garage and 197 residential apartments.
The mayor and City Council have sustained the momentum of these fiber optic network-related projects by directing the city administration to embed innovation into all aspects of city government.
In 2015, the public works department wrote a request for proposals for a citywide energy and water efficiencies audit, designed to identify ways the city could save resources and money.
In the end, Climatec Building Technology Group, an industrial automation company based in Phoenix, Arizona, was chosen to implement many energy-saving initiatives, such as installing new HVAC equipment and LED lighting in government buildings.
Public Works Director Debbie Pollart also saw an opportunity to switch the city’s street lights to Smart LEDs and install a program that would allow her department to control them remotely. Her staff would be able to control their brightness with the click of a mouse and receive text alerts when maintenance was required. Pollart’s goal was to increase operational efficiency, but Acosta and Batalla saw another use for the project.
The technology used to control the lights provided San Leandro with a citywide wireless network that can send data back to services in City Hall. The IT division could use this as a platform to launch other smart city applications using Internet of Things technology, such as sensors.
A year later, San Leandro participated in Startup in Residence (STIR), a program developed by the city and county of San Francisco that connects startups with cities to address civic challenges. It led to the creation of a data analytics platform for the Recreation & Human Services Department that is now being expanded citywide.
Mayor Cutter says these are just a few examples of the “secret sauce” that keeps San Leandro on technology’s cutting edge.
“Innovation is hard—it doesn’t matter if it’s public or private—it’s often not accepted very early or quickly because of the risk of collateral impacts and, people don’t like to fail. But it’s an important tool for the city to thrive,” she says.
And San Leandro is in no short supply.
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