Facebook proposing sizable mixed use development for itself and the public near its HQ

Next to its big headquarters, Facebook wants to construct over 1,700 apartments, 200,000 feet of retail space, and over 1 million square feet of office space:

The most recent plans, which were updated in May, show the development will be built where a single-use industrial and warehouse complex currently stands…

It will feature 1,729 apartments, including about 320 that will be affordable housing and up to 120 units designated for senior housing…

The plans for the new city also feature a supermarket, pharmacy, cafes and restaurants and a 193-room hotel.

The 200,000 square feet of planned retail space will be built around a 1.5-acre town square.

Separate to the town square will be a four-acre public park, a two-acre elevated park similar to New York City’s High Line and other public open spaces.

In addition to the housing and retail spaces, Facebook also plans to have 1.25 million square feet of new office, meeting and conference room space for the social media company.

There are multiple interesting elements of this proposal:

  1. This has numerous benefits for Facebook. It will have new office space built to its specifications. It will have some housing space for workers. It worked with the municipality to make changes.
  2. All of this happening in the aftermath of COVID-19 where it is not entirely clear how many workers will return to the office. Adding this amount of office space suggests Facebook thinks it – or some other firm – can use the space.
  3. This kind of mixed-use development is popular in many places. For example, New Urbanists promote such developments for their numerous advantages. Is Facebook explicitly building on this line of reasoning or does it have other reasons for this kind of development?
  4. Once the land is developed in this way, what role will Facebook play moving forward in overseeing the space? This will be an ongoing tension between the company, residents, and the municipality.
  5. This is an expensive area in which to develop land. Facebook has the resources to pull this off when others could not. In the long run, will this viewed as a net gain for the larger community or is it best for the company?

Since the project is under review by Menlo Park, it will be interesting to see how this continues to play out.

Combining local government and company towns in a Nevada proposal

A proposal in Nevada would create “Innovation Zones” where companies could form their own local governments:

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

According to a draft of the proposed legislation, obtained by the Review-Journal but not yet introduced in the Legislature, Innovation Zones would allow tech companies like Blockchains, LLC to effectively form separate local governments in Nevada, governments that would carry the same authority as a county, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and justice courts and provide government services, to name a few duties.

Sisolak pitched the concept in his State of the State address as his plan to bring in new companies that are at the forefront of “groundbreaking technologies,” all without the use of tax abatements or other publicly funded incentive packages that had previously helped Nevada bring companies like Tesla to the state.

During his speech last month, Sisolak specifically named Blockchains, LLC as a company that had committed to developing a “smart city” in the area east of Reno that would run entirely on blockchain technology, once the legislation passes…

The draft proposal lays out the requirements for the zone, including the applicant owning 50,000 acres of undeveloped land, all within a single county but separate of any city, town or tax increment area. And the area would have to be uninhabited. The company would also need to have $250 million, and a plan to invest an additional $1 billion over 10 years into the zone.

This would appear to come at the nexus of trends. First, Americans generally like the idea of local government. They believe it to be more nimble and responsive to local needs as local officials can focus more on getting things done than getting bogged down in ideology or numerous competing interests.

Second, tech companies and other big companies like the idea of large campuses. Having a sizable portion of private land where employees can do all sorts of things, including work, is already a feature in some tech headquarters.

Third, governments want to attract businesses, whether headquarters or manufacturing facilities or office parks, that can help bring jobs, tax revenues, and status. This proposal provides different incentives compared to the traditional tax break.

Fourth, businesses like the idea of controlling activities regarding their company. Company towns are not new nor are ideas about creating regulation free zones for business activity. Being able to create local regulations, collect taxes, and more could be attractive to some companies.

Would such a proposal prove successful? It might depend on the definition of success: it could work out well for the business but perhaps not for employees or surrounding communities. And even if it does work, is it broadly transferable to other locations? The conditions in Nevada might be different than many other locations in the United States.

Constructing a New Urbanist movie town outside of Atlanta

Going up around a one-stop movie filming and production facility outside of Atlanta is a New Urbanist community named Trilith.

Google Maps

When the British film studio company Pinewood opened a production facility outside Atlanta in 2014, it framed the venture as a one-stop-shop alternative to the mature but spatially fragmented system in Hollywood. With a high-tech media center, soundstages, offices, prop houses, and set builders all colocated, Pinewood Atlanta was a turnkey space for filming. An early relationship with Marvel Studios led to a steady stream of big-budget superhero movies such as Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War, and Pinewood Atlanta quickly became a contender in the film business.

But some of its local investors wanted it to be more than just a production facility. They wanted the entire business to have a place at the studios, with development of new shows happening where they’d eventually be filmed, and local workers able to easily commute to jobs on the site, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. So they decided to build a town…

Pinewood recently left the project, amiably, and the studio and town are now fully in the hands of local founders, who have accelerated Trilith’s development, which broke ground two years ago. Planned with New Urbanist design principles, Trilith is a dense, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use village, with a commercial town center, more than half of its area dedicated to green space and forest, and room for an eventual population of 5,000. About 500 people are currently living in the town, which is planned to have a total of 1,400 townhomes, apartments, cohousing units, and 500-square-foot “microhomes.” Housing is available to rent or buy, and Trilith’s developers say it’s luring residents from within the film industry as well as people from other walks of life…

Parker says the town was inspired by Seaside, a New Urbanist community in Florida famous for its use as the setting of The Truman Show. Trilith was designed by the Atlanta-based planning firm Lew Oliver, with homes designed and built by companies such as 1023 Construction and Brightwater Homes. Parker says the design was intended to appeal to young creatives, with an emphasis on wellness and access to the outdoors, but with the kinds of amenities people want in a town. The first of the town’s restaurants recently opened, and 11 more are in the works. A 60,000-square-foot fitness studio was recently completed, and a K-12 school is already open.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the film industry and the town continues. On one hand, it could create a regular level of business and residents. On the other hand, not everyone in the community will be involved and interests could collide. Will this be like other suburbs and communities that rely heavily on one industry or sector (with both the advantages and disadvantages that come with this)?
  2. Later portions of the article discuss the diversity of residents in the community. Seaside looks good on film but has been more of a wealthy community than one that lives up to its New Urbanist principles of having mixed-income housing and residents. Will the desirability of such a community drive up housing costs? Will the connection to the film industry make it more difficult to others to move in?
  3. Does this provide a new model for numerous industries? For example, prior to COVID-19 big tech firms had constructed large, all-encompassing headquarters intended in part to help keep workers close. Or, large office buildings in central areas help consolidate workers and multiple sectors. But, perhaps this New Urbanist vision provides an alternative: more space in the suburbs, film facilities, other opportunities in the town outside of film.

“Robber barons would have loved Facebook’s employee housing”

Facebook’s new campus includes more residential units. This leads one writer to compare the development to a company town:

Company towns of this era had a barely-hidden paternalistic agenda. Wealthy businessmen saw their workers as family, sort of, and they wanted to provide their wards with safe, modern housing. But many were strict fathers, dictating the minutiae of their grown employees’ lives, from picking the books in the library to restricting the availability of alcohol. It’s hard to imagine Facebook going that far, though the company does try to subtly influence its employees lives by offering such healthy freebies as on-site gyms, bike repair, and walking desks. It’s a strategy that mimics what happened with some later company towns, which employed paternalism to better the company, not just employees’ lives. “Company welfare was seen as an important strategy to promote company loyalty and peaceful relations,” Borges says.

Of course, Facebook isn’t exactly like the Pullmans, Hersheys, and Kohlers of olden times. For one, those were all built on what developers call greenfields, or land which hadn’t been previously developed for housing or commercial uses. Borges also points out that they didn’t have to deal with any existing municipal governments, either. Such greenfield freedom allowed industrialists to maintain a level of autonomy that would make even the most libertarian techies blush. Today, in Silicon Valley, there’s not much of undeveloped land left, so Facebook will have to renovate or demolish to accommodate its plans.

Those discrepancies means Facebook won’t be creating a company town from whole cloth, but slowly taking over the existing city of Menlo Park and re-envisioning it for their employees. The Facebook-backed Anton Menlo development, for example, will consist of 394 units when it opens next year. Just 15 of those are reportedly available for non-Facebook employees…

So maybe Facebookville is an arcology—a political one. What Facebook is building is both entirely similar and completely different from Pullman, Illinois, and its turn-of-the-last-century brethren. It’s a 21st century company town—built by slowly, occasionally unintentionally, taking over a public entity, and building a juggernaut of a private institution in its place.

As noted in an earlier post, this isn’t the first time the concern has been raised that Facebook employees or the company could wield political power over the official municipality in which it is located. Does it matter here if the company is perceived differently than previous company towns from manufacturers like Pullman? Does Facebook exploit its workers in the way that some thought manufacturers and robber baron era corporations exploited their workers? What if the tech employees of today don’t mind this arrangement? Perhaps the pricing on these units is a lot more reasonable than the rest of the Bay Area. In the end, are we sure that company towns are doomed to fail or that it represents an inappropriate mingling of corporate and civic interests? It is not as if Facebook or Google or other major corporations don’t have political power through other channels…

 

Facebook partnering to build a new mixed-use development for its workers

Here are a few details about Facebook’s plans to help put together a new mixed-use development near its main campus:

The planned complex, designed by architecture firm KTGY Group, is the first major housing development in Menlo Park in 20 years, and is expected to open in 2016. According to Deanna Chow, a senior planner in Menlo Park’s planning department, the city is largely occupied by single-family homes. This 394-unit residential community will be the first mixed-use development of its scale in the city…

While Facebook’s investment in the complex only extends to subsidizing 15 low-income units, Anton Menlo could very well become a “Facebook Town.” Besides its proximity to Facebook’s campus, the designers also kept the company’s employees very much in mind. A series of focus groups and electronic surveys gauging employees’ needs and desires translated into amenities like a “grab & go” convenience store, sports pub, doggy daycare, bicycle repair shop, and an “iCafe” filled with community WiFi zones, printers, and office supplies. Once construction begins, St. Anton will market the apartments to Facebook employees first before opening up to the general public. The developer is also working to establish a leasing office on Facebook’s campus.

Beyond concerns about Facebook employees becoming slaves to work or the beginnings of a community made up entirely of “brogrammers,” the project is actually a much-needed step in addressing Menlo Park’s housing strain. According to a housing fact sheet from the city, Menlo Park has a “jobs/housing inbalance,” with 41,320 workers but only 13,129 housing units…

On the plus side, housing employees close to work can help reduce traffic and gridlock. In fact, the Anton Menlo project aims to make several specific transit improvements. The Facebook corporate shuttle will be adding a stop at Anton Menlo. On a mission to get people home as soon as possible, the developer is working with the city to put in a bike path that runs directly from the Facebook campus to the new complex. Also in the works are separated sidewalks, crosswalks that light up to caution cars, and an underground tunnel linking Facebook’s campus to the apartments.

So, Facebook might help alleviate some housing pressure in a community that is difficult to live in but there will be questions about this being a “company town.” There are a lot of American companies that could afford similar actions. If they provide housing for their employees without being too controlling, two good things might emerge: (1) the workers might be more productive and (2) the community could be helped. Either way, it will be interesting to watch the outcome of Facebook’s real estate development activities.

While companies might get flack about providing housing, I wonder if developers and those involved in real estate are regarded more highly for their efforts to develop housing. For example, this 2009 Harris Poll regarding occupational prestige has real estate agent/broker at the bottom of 23 occupations. Developers sometimes provide big houses people want but they can also raise the ire of neighbors whose NIMBY hackles are raised.

Turning Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood into a national park

Some are hoping to create Illinois’ second national park in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood:

Pullman would be one of the more unusual sites for a national park and among the easiest to reach. The Metra Electric Line has two stops in the community of about 8,900 residents. It also would be one of the least bucolic.

Two residents said they’re pushing for the park because the increased tourist traffic would help sustain retail businesses that otherwise can’t survive in the neighborhood. A massive Wal-Mart is scheduled to open nearby this summer, but the area has been barren of dry cleaners, salons, restaurants and coffee shops for years…

At the request of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the state’s two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, the National Park Service is in the midst of studying the neighborhood’s suitability as a national park site, said Mike Reynolds, the park service’s Midwest regional director. The study should be complete by May.

“Pullman’s significance is of no question,” Reynolds said when asked what the study would conclude. “Then we have to ask is there another one like it already out there in our (parks) system? In this case, I doubt there is. … Finally, we come to feasibility — the how, what, where. That’s the challenging issue in this case.”

The neighborhood is indeed historic and I’m sure the neighborhood and the city of Chicago love the idea of more tourists. I imagine there is a lot of potential here, particularly for school groups who could visit and to highlight Chicago’s important industrial past.

I don’t know the particulars of the National Park System but I am in favor of more urban sites. We need to preserve nature as well as notable urban locations that have heavily influenced American history.

Facebook’s company town gets a new Main Street

Disneyland has its own Main Street, Walt Disney’s vision of idyllic small-town American life, and now Facebook’s campus is getting its own version:

Unlike the days of Henry Ford and George Pullman, when industrialists built towns surrounding manufacturing operations, Facebook is bringing retail shops onto its sprawling private campus on the outskirts of Menlo Park where there are few commercial establishments other than fast-food joints.

The company is subsidizing the construction; handpicked merchants will offer discounted prices to employees.

“It is the 21st century company town,” said Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at investment research firm Discern Analytics…

But Facebook had to come up with new carrots when it moved its headquarters a few months ago to a suburban outpost at the edge of tidal mud flats and salt marshes cut off from the rest of Menlo Park by a six-lane highway. It’s so isolated that when former tenant Sun Microsystems occupied it, the campus was nicknamed “Sun Quentin.”…

“It’s just a great perk: ‘My company has created a little city for me,’ ” said Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, coauthor of “The Progress Principle,” who studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance.

The comparison to company towns is fascinating: as I remember it, these towns didn’t last long. Pullman, for example, might have been viewed as efficient but workers ended up seeing it as paternalistic. So why exactly is this “21st century company town” strictly a perk – because Facebook is cool? Because the jobs don’t include manual labor manufacturing work and are creative class jobs that pay well? Because Facebook is reclaiming this brownfield of sprawl? Couldn’t the Main Street be viewed as controlling and an inducement to ask people to work even longer hours?

Two other quick questions:

1. What would happen if employees didn’t like the Main Street, stopped going, or started protesting? It is company property so I assume activities are somewhat restricted though a company like this doesn’t want to alienate all of their workers.

2. It is interesting that Americans like to hearken back to small town life even when we as a country have rapidly moved to an urban (and often decentralized) landscape. Is this Main Street more like a theme park, akin to Disneyland? Perhaps Facebook should start including some dormitories so that Main Street could have more activity around the clock.