Facebook built a virtual community that linked more than 2 billion people, an achievement with few precedents. Now the social network is building a real community, the kind you can walk around.
MENLO PARK, Calif. — John Tenanes, Facebook’s vice president for real estate, is showing off the company’s plans for expansion. It will have offices for thousands of programmers to extend Facebook’s fearsome reach. But that is not what Tenanes is excited about.
He leans over a scale model of the 59-acre site, which is named Willow Village. “There will be housing there,” he points. “There will be a retail street along here, with a grocery store and a drugstore. That round building in the corner? Maybe a cultural center.”
In just a few years, Facebook built a virtual community that linked more than 2 billion people, an achievement with few precedents. Now the social network is building a real community, the kind you can walk around.
Facebook, Tenanes says, has a dual mission: “We want to balance our growth with the community’s needs.”
Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and it has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.
The community will have 8 acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers.
Tenanes contemplates the audacity of building a city.
“It’s a good thing, right?” he says.
Depends how it goes. Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown.
The company has not warmed to these names. “I owe my soul to the company store,” Tennessee Ernie Ford sang. But Facebook’s ambitions are now confronting a more urgent problem: an escalating crisis over the company’s power to sway elections, its casual approach to data privacy and its susceptibility to Russian manipulation. If Facebook’s image is permanently sullied by the furor over Cambridge Analytica, the data firm hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Zucktown will falter before it is finished.
The social-media colossus is not the only Big Tech company in the complicated position of dressing up its expansion as a gift to its neighbors.
A few miles down the 101 highway, another new civic-corporate partnership is underway in the city of Mountain View. Google is promising to place the public “in the very heart of Google’s vibrant community.”
The search company plans a 600,000-square-foot office building with a roof that melts up into soft peaks, kind of like a meringue. It will have stores, cafes, gardens and even a space for theatrical performances, as well as a place for consumers to test-drive new Google technology.
Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord and declined further comment.
Zucktown and Alphabet City, as well as similar projects being contemplated across Silicon Valley, could at a minimum have consequences for the startup culture that transformed fruit orchards into the world’s greatest tech hub. Silicon Valley was built by engineers jumping from company to company. That drove the innovation that sped the rise of some firms and hastened the demise of others.
As workers begin to literally live at the office, they will inevitably be more beholden to bosses who also collect the rent. After all, it is much harder to find a place to live in Silicon Valley than a new job. Turnover may slump, and so might the turnover in ideas.
The push into the physical also has implications for the 1.2 million people in Silicon Valley who are teachers, fitness instructors, clerks, baristas — all those who hold jobs that do not come with stock options. As they inch down the clogged streets and bid money they don’t have on miserable houses, they will hear the siren call of Big Tech: We can fix broken communities by building new ones. Trust us.
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“Corporations are paying for things that the city or county and state used to pay for,” said Cecilia Taylor of Belle Haven Action, a community-advocacy group. “They have a lot of money. A lot of money. More than the city does. And a lot more power.”
On a wall in the Facebook division charged with the company’s growth there is a poster with a classic tech admonition: “Go Big or Go Home.” Facebook is in essence tweaking that to “Go Big at Home.” About 12,000 of its 25,000 employees work in Menlo Park. In a decade, it will have space for 35,000 — slightly more than the city’s current population.
Facebook’s move toward openness and community engagement is recent. Its current campus, which it moved into in 2011, is a ring of buildings with a “street” in the middle that has restaurants, pop-up shops, a book exchange and other amenities, but only employees can go there.
Across the street, the company opened in 2015 an office designed by Frank Gehry. It is basically one enormous room — the largest open-floor plan in the world, Facebook says. On the landscaped roof is a garden, a walking loop and many trees. The neighbors cannot see any of this.
In Zucktown, this notion of firmly separated insiders and outsiders will be deliberately blurred.
“The retail stores will not be managed by Facebook. But we have the mechanism, we are the property owner,” says Tenanes, the real-estate chief, adding that he doesn’t know exactly how it will work in practice. “It is a bit new.”
Menlo Science & Technology Park, a decaying office park that will be torn down for Willow Village, is not exactly a beloved part of the city, and neither are the other sites on which Facebook has been building. They were in an industrial zone. That has helped insulate the company from criticism, which nonetheless simmers beneath the surface in Belle Haven.
The Peery Foundation, a grantmaker based nearby in Palo Alto, made a short video two years ago documenting how the area around Facebook’s headquarters was changing. It interviewed dozens of local residents, including one woman who referred to landlords who had been renting to low-income families and were now selling their properties. “Eventually,” she said, “there’s going to be nobody here but Facebook.”
Facebook, in a comment at the end of the film, acknowledges, “We still have a lot of work to do.” The company has increased its efforts in the community. So has the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited-liability company set up by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan for philanthropy. At the same time, Facebook has continued to expand.