“Writing up legal descriptions was far less of a science back in the day,” says Nanci Klein, director of real estate for the city. “To my knowledge, Google’s extensive historical research did not yield anyone who could meet the criteria of controlling the property.”
Nevertheless, Google set about tracking down the original owner’s families. In February, it sent letters to 115 possible descendants of the three men, including Peter Adams, a product manager at a data center technology firm in Washington. Google believes Adams could be a remote descendant of Archibald Peachy, via Peachy’s son-in-law’s niece’s husband’s nephew.
In its letter to Adams, Google wrote that it was “in the process of cleaning up title” to the San Jose roads, and that it would pay Adams a “courtesy fee” if he filed a quitclaim deed that surrendered his rights and interest in the property and kept the deal strictly confidential. The $5,000 offered was almost an insult, according to one legal expert WIRED spoke with; another defendant described it as “a meaningless sum” in a court filing. Commercial plots in San Jose have recently sold for $2 million an acre, or more—albeit for traditional lots not cobbled together from roads and alleyways.
While the majority of those 115 descendants signed the quitclaim deed, Adams did not. Nor, presumably, did 33 other potential heirs to the original men. So Google sued them, in what is called a “quiet title” lawsuit. (Mark Zuckerberg used similar lawsuits in an effort to secure control of a 700-acre estate in Hawaii in 2017.)
“In order for Google to proceed with its development plans for the Project, fee title in the Subject Properties must be perfected in Google,” reads a lawsuit filed by Google and the City of San Jose in the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara, in April.
A number of Frederick Billings’ descendants are still prominent, including a few who married into the Rockefeller family. Many of the defendants can claim direct descent from Peachy and Naglee. None of those contacted by WIRED wanted to comment on the case.
Others are proving trickier to track down. In May, Google and San Jose admitted in a filing that “despite reasonable diligence, [they] had been unable to ﬁnd addresses or locations for a number of defendants,” and asked the court for extra time to serve their summonses.
To complicate matters, Adams filed a countersuit in Santa Clara in early May—later joined by five other of the men’s descendants—demanding that the court confirm their ownership of the two larger parcels. Google would not answer questions related to the lawsuits, but spokesperson Bailey Tomson provided this statement: “We’re working with the City of San Jose on a land transfer process. It is our shared goal to optimize the public benefits of this project, including reconfiguring streets into open space and bike and pedestrian trails to give the community a more walkable, transit-oriented downtown.”
Although the city had stated that construction could begin in 2023, the case may shift that date. “It’s impossible for me to give any time frame,” says Klein. “But you have to control the land before you start putting shovel to ground.”
It seems unlikely that a few dusty old deeds would derail the estimated $19 billion Downtown West project altogether. In late June, Google dismissed its complaint against eight of the descendants after they accepted payouts of an undisclosed size. And just last week, Adams and his codefendants dismissed their countersuit, possibly as a result of another settlement.
Whether the remaining descendants of Billings, Peachy, and Naglee fall in line or not, the original entrepreneurs would surely have been impressed that their modest real estate investment is still generating returns, a century and a half down the line.