Call it… Zuckerburgh.
Last week, Facebook announced plans to build a “village” next to its Menlo Park, California, headquarters that would include some 1,500 homes, along with a grocery store, a pharmacy, shops, offices, and public plazas. One goal is to provide an attractive place for some of Facebook’s own employees to live and shop near its sprawling yet somewhat isolated campus.
The concept is reminiscent of the late 19th-century company town, in which major employers built self-contained communities for their own workers. As with many would-be utopias, some of these towns turned dystopian in a hurry.
Hear this article on Slate Voice! slate.com/voice
But Facebook’s proposal, which it’s calling the Willow Campus, differs in important ways from company towns past. And it just might be a model for other big tech companies in Silicon Valley, where housing has become so expensive that even young software engineers struggle to make ends meet, to say nothing of local blue-collar and service workers.
One difference from the traditional company-town model is that Facebook’s village would be open to the public. Besides housing its workers, Facebook said in a promotional video that the development was intended to create “pathways and connections” between its corporate headquarters and the surrounding residential neighborhoods of East Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, which are relatively poor by Silicon Valley standards. The grocery store might be particularly welcome in an area that has been described as a “food desert.”
Unfortunately, the proposal calls for only 15 percent of the housing to be offered at below market rate, which is not a particularly generous ratio. It would be nice to see Menlo Park push for more below-market-rate housing in the approval process, although history says it’s more likely to push for lower density instead. (Peninsula cities are notorious for objecting to new housing, ostensibly on the grounds that it will worsen traffic or crowd local schools. In some cases those are thinly veiled excuses for what amounts to a desire to keep the riffraff out.)
Other aspects of the proposal hold more promise for addressing some of the problems that the tech boom and local regulations on the San Francisco Peninsula have conspired to create. One intriguing component is Facebook’s apparent interest in reviving the Dumbarton Rail Corridor, a long-neglected transit route that would provide a sorely needed link between the East Bay and the Peninsula. An actual rail connection would be extremely expensive and is probably a long way off, but Facebook has already spent at least $1 million to study transit alternatives along the corridor, including new bus routes. Almost anything would help: Facebook’s headquarters along the Bay shore are too remote from any transit center to make mass transit convenient for most of its employees.
The problem isn’t unique to Facebook. The Peninsula in general has a surfeit of jobs, largely in the tech industry, and a shortage of housing and transportation infrastructure. The results include exorbitant rents, gnarly traffic, and vast quantities of air pollution and carbon emissions from all the workers driving long distances from their homes in more affordable suburbs far afield.
The company-town model might be somewhat less appealing in other U.S. cities where housing prices are less exorbitant. But the broad trends toward more urban-style living and away from car ownership would seem to present an opportunity for large employers outside major urban centers to develop attractive, walkable mini-neighborhoods that could double as a perk for their workers and catalysts of further development in the surrounding areas.
In the context of Silicon Valley, 1500 homes and a modest shopping center near the Facebook campus would amount to not much more than a drop in the bucket. But if the project succeeds, it could help to convince Facebook and other big tech companies to open the spigot and propose more mixed-use, transit-accessible developments along similar lines. Google is already building a few hundred units of dormitory-style temporary housing to serve some of its workers, and has in the past proposed much more ambitious projects. Salesforce and Apple come to mind as other Peninsula-based companies that could theoretically follow their lead, although their corporate cultures may be less conducive to the village concept.
Projects like this would be especially welcome if Facebook’s village really does manage to serve and include residents of adjoining neighborhoods such as Belle Haven, which have long been cut off from the sort of amenities that make the rest of Menlo Park and neighboring Palo Alto such desirable places to live. The stark contrasts between East and West Menlo Park and Palo Alto—which are mirrored, perhaps to a lesser degree, in other suburbs up and down the Peninsula, including Google’s Mountain View—emblematize the broader societal inequalities that the tech industry has helped to exacerbate. If Facebook genuinely cares about making the world more open and connected—whoops, I mean, giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together—it could start by helping to desegregate its own corporate backyard.
It’s no sure thing that this development will become reality anytime soon. Silicon Valley suburbs have been known to quash major housing and commercial proposals in the past, including from other large tech companies. Let’s hope that Menlo Park’s interventionism takes the form of making sure Facebook’s project lives up to its lofty goals, rather than watering down the density and modest below-market commitment to mollify local NIMBYs.