In a quick hearing Thursday, June 6, The Dalles Planning Commission unanimously approved an application by Google to build a new building up to 80 feet tall at its data center campus.
The approval is just the first step, said Dave Karlson, hardware operations site manager for Google's data center in The Dalles.
“We’re in the early stages of evaluating what we might be able to do on that lot,” he told the commission, “and the technology has changed a fair bit in the six and a half years since we got here.”
The new building will house more data center infrastructure, which is servers and network equipment, he told the Chronicle after the meeting.
City rules allow outright industrial buildings that are 55 feet tall, but to be higher than that, a variance, or a conditional use permit, must be obtained.
A variance is needed for buildings up to 75 feet, and a conditional use permit is needed for buildings over 75 feet.
When Google started talking to the city about the building, it was thinking it would be in the low 70s in height, but then its actual application was to go 80 feet, The Dalles Planning Director Dick Gassman said.
Gassman decided to take the unusual step of treating the Google application as both a variance request and a request for a conditional use permit, since both processes are the same.
The commission approved both a variance and a conditional use permit.
Google has five buildings, excluding guard shacks, and three of them house data center infrastructure. The other two are a cafeteria and meeting space and a storage facility.
The taller building will go in a bare spot in the center of the campus, between Building 1 and Building 3, which both house data center infrastructure.
Gassman said earlier that Google couldn’t do any detailed design work until it knew how high it could build.
A conceptual design was submitted with the variance application, but Karlson said it might not be a fair representation of what finally gets built.
He emphasized that Google was still very early in its process, and he jokingly characterized the work so far as, “napkin engineering”with a “napkin drawing.”
He said the application was made just so Google could get a sense of “what might be possible for us to pursue.”
He did say Google is known for wanting to do things quickly, but he added that “quickly” is a “relative term.”
He did not know when Google would submit more detailed building proposals to the city.
The variance and conditional use permit are good for one year, and can be renewed for one more.
Carlson said the building site is the largest unimproved space on campus. He said the campus has steadily done upgrades to its equipment, by replacing old equipment with new equipment that is the same size, but has more capacity.
Gassman told the commission planning staff recommended approval because the building would not overwhelm the other relatively tall buildings on the campus, which is itself fairly isolated from other buildings.
The grounds of the Google campus sit mostly level with, or lower than surrounding properties, and it is significantly lower than Interstate 84, Gassman said.
To a question from Commissioner Dennis Whitehouse, Gassman said the determination of whether a building would be overwhelming was a subjective one.
Gassman said he made the determination that “It’s still going to be a big building, but the scale won’t offend people. Obviously everybody has their own opinion.”
Granting the taller building also represented an efficient use of space, Gassman said, which the city is focusing on more and more, as the chances of the city being able to expand its boundaries anytime soon is uncertain.
The city needs approval from the Columbia River Gorge Commission and the state to expand its boundaries, and Gassman said, ‘it is not clear at this point that the city is going to be successful in expanding its urban growth boundary” through the Gorge Commission.
For that reason, “It is very important to us that we use the land we have to the maximum efficiency,” he said.
Google could build two single-story buildings, if need be, but “that would take up a lot of valuable land.”
Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege encouraged the commission to approve the application, saying Google had been “a great community partner.”
The application submitted by Google was for the height alone, and was not a detailed site plan application, which will be submitted at a later date.