“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.