Hoping to Win Over a Town, Facebook Holds Urban Planning "Hack-a-thon"

Facebook is moving from tony Palo Alto to blue-collar Belle Haven, and they want to woo residents with community-oriented design.

Some social networks still function better in the flesh, and so, on Saturday, Facebook played host to a massive "design charrette" that brought four busloads of architects, designers, and urban planners together for an all-day cram session devoted to re-imagining Menlo Park's Belle Haven community, soon-to-be home of the company's global headquarters.


[Zuckerberg with architect John Stewart]

The charrette, organized by AIA San Mateo and the city of Menlo Park (with Facebook hosting and taking home the ideas), was billed as the architectural equivalent of one of the company's legendary code-writing "hackathons." Some 150 architects, designers, and students forfeited their Saturday and wired in for a 12-hour draft-a-thon that produced a bevy of ideas for connecting the isolated Facebook campus with the surrounding community and adjacent wetlands, as well as suggestions for redeveloping the area with better transit, denser mixed-use housing, and lively retail and business districts. Even the Zuck himself swung by in the morning hours to see how the web of design brains was working. John Tenanes, Facebook's director of real estate, suggested Papa Zuck was pleased with the fanfare. "He eyeballed me and said to me, ?Awesome.?"

Facebook wants to change the fortress vibe and embrace the community.

While crowd-sourcing urban-planning ideas might sound like the premise for a design-by-committee horror show, Saturday's talent was a gifted bunch of professionals who were given free rein to let their otherwise repressed design imaginations run wild. From Facebook's perspective, it was solid strategy: the company basically persuaded teams of the Peninsula's top architects to work all day pro bono in an effort to brainstorm ideas for sprucing up the new company's neighborhood digs. And while it might seem a tad unusual for a company to care so much about improving local amenities, it's ultimately a gambit that works in Facebook's favor on several fronts: employee satisfaction, lunch-hour options, community-outreach brownie points. Plus, it never hurts to dispel the stale image of Silicon Valley companies as tinted-window office parks full of tech hermits who really just wish you would leave them and their energy-drinks in peace. (Fittingly, Facebook's former Palo Alto campus was casually known as the Bunker.)


[One of the proposed concepts]

With the company slated to begin moving the first wave of employees into a sprawling corporate campus (formerly home to Sun Microsystems) as early as June, Facebook is wise for wanting to make life better for its worker bees in a competitive tech field. Belle Haven — despite the pastoral idyll of its name — lacks the high-income, high-gloss sheen of tony Palo Alto, the home to Facebook's current headquarters. Its demographics are dominated by Hispanic, African American and Pacific Islander communities. It projects a blue-collar vibe, with scruffy post-World War II homes on small lots, congested freeways for borders, a separate struggling school system, and very sparse retail options. A quick tour reveals a gleaming new Jack in the Box, the ubiquitous Starbucks, a handful of taquerias, nondescript industrial parks, acres of asphalt, and finally, the neglected bay front. Those are slim pickings for Facebookers emigrating from tree-lined downtown Palo Alto, with its Coach-and-Cartier shopping centers and Baumé and Chez TJ bistros.

Belle Haven lacks the high-gloss sheen of tony Palo Alto.

"It's an area that could use some improvement," architect Kevin Norman said with tactful understatement. With that goal in mind, Norman co-chaired the all-day design charrette with fellow architect John Stewart (the other one) at Facebook's headquarters-to-be this past weekend.

As for the 57-acre former Sun campus: It'd no doubt be pegged "introvert" on any Meyer-Briggs diagnostic. A ring of 11 interconnected buildings creates an inward-looking little tech colony bordered by acres of parking on all sides. While there may not be an actual moat ringing the complex, marshland on two sides and four lanes of cross-if-you-dare Bayshore Expressway on the other provide the same defensive feel.

Facebook says it wants to change the fortress vibe and embrace the community. So to kick things off on Saturday, designers took morning bus tours of the adjacent Belle Haven neighborhood — several dozen local residents came along to lend their thoughts — and then broke into Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green teams. Teams of 20 to 40 each rolled up their T-shirts and began cranking out as many hand sketches and digital models as they could before an after-dinner deadline: a show-your-work presentation before a packed assembly of fellow architects, Facebook reps, Menlo Park city officials, and a sprinkling of nearby residents. The day's mission, as Norman tells it: "creating a sense of community" — or perhaps, more to the point, to create a larger sense of community, one that very conspicuously features Facebook.


[Another concept, for a footbridge linking the campus with the surrounding blocks]

In an effort to open up the campus to its surroundings, architects proposed adding additional entrances leading in from the surrounding neighborhood (?porous? and "connectivity" were the day's big buzz words). Designers repeatedly sought ways to transform the area immediately adjoining the Facebook campus into a dynamic 'hub' of restaurants, retail and transit, a kind of physical manifestation of the company's reputation for knitting people together. The aspiration is less asphalt desert, more around-the-clock urban "sizzle."

More of the day's ideas, which ranged from the prosaic to utopian:

"Team Red pitched a fanciful elevated ring-like walk-way that touches down at four corners, connecting the neighborhood, campus, future transit station and restored wetlands; they call it the ?Friends Circle." (Think: The High Line, but shaped like a donut.) 'Spaces up in the air don't have to be skinny little dashes across the freeway,' said architect Paul Jamtgaard, who came up with the idea.
?Students on Team Blue suggested Facebook ditch the passé perimeter fence blocking off surrounding marshlands, move the security perimeter in closer to the buildings, and promote walkways, cantilevered boardwalks, and more access points to embrace revitalized marshland and salt ponds.
'Bioswales could drain hardscape runoff, while ?metabolic wetlands' would further digest contaminants.
?Areas currently paved over for parking could be refashioned into a recreation center, replete with a soccer field and skate park (the two-wheeled Ripstik apparently has many, many friends at Facebook).
?Team Yellow zeroed in on the surrounding hood and suggested current zoning codes be relaxed to accommodate higher-density mixed-use infill housing, with modern, energy efficient residences and community-serving amenities throughout the area. (Community gardens! Parks! Gourmet food trucks!)
?The Green team imagined a renovated gateway leading into Facebook that combines an iconic new rail depot decked with solar panels, high-density housing, a neighborhood visitor center and 24/7 amenities for around-the-clock Facebookers.
"Team Red also pitched the idea of ?modularity" for a swath devoted to incubating new businesses. Individual building modules mean businesses can keep metastasizing without having to relocate. (We're looking at you, Facebook!)

After seeing all the proposals, Facebook's Tenanes seemed genuinely inspired. "I was very emotional," he said. "They're all really great ideas. I?m going to take these back to Facebook and present them to the entire company."

We asked him what ideas particularly fired his fancy. "I like the idea of taking advantage of the bay land right next door," he said. "I like the idea of connecting the rail line, which right now isn't active. If it was active, we could use that to get Facebook employees to the campus."

Team Red

[Team Red's "Circle of Friends" concept]

While Facebook will have total control and a generous budget when it comes to redesigning the former Sun campus, which can accommodate up to 3,600 employees, it remains unclear what part the company will play in spurring redevelopment throughout the surrounding community. Tenanes, asked to comment on how Facebook might bring some of the day's ideas to fruition, said, "I've got to go back and talk to the management team about how we can do that."

Can anyone living in Belle Haven afford Facebook's Belle Haven of the future?

Clearly Facebook has a vested interest in developing the infrastructure of Menlo Park and Belle Haven. The company might rule its campus, but when it comes to quickening the wheels of gentrification in Belle Haven, they'll have to play nice with residents and the city to get anything done. That said, Saturday's visions of a gleaming rail depot, a bustling hub, and greenways curving through the sky could yield benefits beyond Facebook. The company has the capital and resources to make improvements to the urban landscape that could genuinely benefit both Belle Haveners and Facebook, unlikely as that Venn diagram might appear. If Facebook goes steady with Belle Haven for a decade or more, they could prove a powerful catalyst for redeveloping a neglected area. The awkward question then becomes: Will anyone who lives in Belle Haven now be able to afford the Belle Haven of the future, or will Facebook just have extended eastward the Peninsula's steady procession of BMWs, bistros, and boutiques?

Train Platform

The redesign of the office space (a separate matter overseen by San Francisco-based architectural giant Gensler — a sore point for some of the local architects in the house Saturday) will move quickly. Sunnyvale-based SC Builders already has construction trailers on the property and the first wave of employees is expected to arrive from the Palo Alto headquarters this summer. But anything as contentious and messy as urban redevelopment will understandably take years — the next stop for Saturday's design ideas will be a Menlo Park City Council meeting, where they'll get a hearing on May 3. Mayor Richard Cline is already bracing for a brouhaha among residents, telling the San Jose Mercury "we're going to have a fight and it's going to be loud."

David Johnson, Menlo Park's business development manager, put it more delicately. "We planted a lot of seeds (Saturday) night and just like any garden not all of them will grow," he said, seeking to temper utopian expectations by citing factors like zoning restrictions, funding challenges and local politics. "Some will resonate and some won't."

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  • Robert L. Sandusky

    To clarify, I have been practicing architecture nearly 40 years and during that time have participated in numerous Charrettes.

    Again I express my concern; how does the Facebook charrette design solution reconcile the conflict of allowing permanent residents of Belle Haven living in small, affordable houses built on small lots to remain there while accommodating new housing units of 3 or 4 bedrooms and in-law units intended to upgrade their neighborhood?

  • John Stewart

    I don't know how anyone who wasn't there could criticize what we did. I am a co-chair of the event and know how much work went into the pre-planning of the event. We spend two intense months where we usually spend six. We have been doing Charrettes since 1982 (I was a team leader) and know what we are doing. We have done something like 20 in that time span. We did have neighborhood input. We had Spanish copies of the flyers made and even had an interpreter available for the neighbors. I urge the critics to spend the money to come on May 3 when we present the final results to the council. There were four other teams designs that were not reflected in that article. Many of which were very practical and could be implemented right away. Hope to see you come and learn how to do a Charrette! AIASMC rocks them!!!

  • Bill Van Housen

    OOooooooooophs! A 'social network' "REPLY" faux-paux. My 2nd comment below was not intended to 'react' to the article. It was meant to 'reply' to the article posted by 'Karja Hansen' who's article was very 'negative' and appeared to be without knowledge of the events purpose. [Although their opinion is allowed to be expressed in this open format.] This article was, as I meant to address in an earlier comment, a nice piece of pen, as it was a great summary and expression of what this 'Charrette' was all about and intended to accomplish. Thanks for taking the time to write the article.

  • Bill Van Housen

    Love your thought process - 'narrow minded' and 'misinformed' like so many. IF you were there your eyes must have been closed. IF you were, then you must not have offered much, or any productive. You really don't understand [nor seem to care] what "this" particular 'charrette' concept was about or what its intent really was that day. Conceptual brainstorming, thought provoking, and dialogue initiating are tools to assist change. 12 hours of 'suggestion' does not create change - it just opens some doors to let it happen.

  • mark lymer

    btw: Menlo Park is a very wealthy community, and the Town Council promising the process to be contentious was a bit of unnecessary 'chest beating'. East Palo Alto, not even sure if it's incorporated as a Town now, ditto with Belle Haven. But both were the very poor step children of the much more wealthy 'landlords' to the west across the freeway. I'm happy for Belle Haven to be considered in the plans for FB. The design of the Sun campus didn't do that. Not blaming anyone tho.

  • mark lymer

    yeh, 'design orgy' is appropriate. and some of the ideas are shallow, but so what? and including the neighborhoods is actually hard to do. it's hard to get them to participate. it just is. I received a grant to GIVE trees away in my neighborhood, I gave away 50, but could have given away 100, TWICE as many! But 50 was the best I could do ea time, (i did it twice, or 200 free trees) and that was hard work! so maybe if this is just regarded as the first pass, and use this as PR to the neighborhoods, then real involvement by the adjacent Belle Haven will happen. That's going to have to be an initiative on FB's part. I lived in PA and MP in early 90's. didn't even know about Belle Haven! and went to East PA once....nuff said. I've done several 'charrettes' and RUDATS here. They always have mixed results. The most successful, in my mind, was the one where the community had already taken charge of their destiny. So coming in and offering design ideas was more icing on the cake to their own substantial efforts. A neighborhood that was rife with drugs and prostitution, and had taken over it's elementary school and is now moving forward again as a safe place to live, and offering a much better educational environment for the children. There is another small community near me. It's been poor and 'undeveloped' for a hundred years. Part of that condition is that it is Native American mixed with other cultures. Part of the lack of change has been it's internal cultural identity, they like it that way, not everyone wants to be white bread. Native Americans are not like you and me, they have a bunch of cultural concerns that I and most of the main stream culture, just don't get. Ditto other cultures like hispanic, etc. I've grown up with kids from that community. Some are very good friends. For example, your 80 year old grandmother made some little ceramic fountain in the dirt front yard. She loves it. So, if you offer to build her a nice new single story condo, 'affordable housing' she may say, sure, knock down that adobe, but what about my little ceramic fountain, that happens to sit in the ROW......and so on. i was involved in a project, pro bono, that would have been the most significant project in that towns history! But the internal politics were so complicated and personal that it killed the will of my friend who initiated it. And he had been operating a free health clinic for a decade in the town! And you should have heard some of the personal comments made about him in Town Council meetings! Whoa!!!! So 'urban design' is a far cry from pretty pictures, and lots of nice slogans. It's gritty, hard, personal, and takes a tremendous personal commitment, mostly from the community. I give big props to the participants that showed up for 12 hours on a friday, i have no problem with ideas. It's always in the follow up over weeks, months and years where the real work gets done. So I encourage the partipants to stay involved, a little at least. And I encourage FB to be patient, stay involved, it doesnt always work to throw a lot of cash at something, it can be really inexpensive to find a great solution for everyone! Sometimes those are the solutions that end up meaning the most. Sort of like a little ceramic fountain.

  • Bill Van Housen

    It was an incredible day of 'creative problem-solving' that gave exposure to a neighborhood that was 'lost' to the overall Menlo Park community. The locals were given some great ideas that now open their doors to a 'much greater' opportunity, especially 'open dialogue' with the leaders of the city. As for the community's involvement with the design process, well those that 'cared' to come did make their voices heard. Team Yellow sat with many folks to hear their needs and reaction to the solutions of all teams. Several 'significant' local Belle Haven citizens and representatives were amazed at the possibilities that could happen, plus were appreciative to the AIASMC Chapter participants for opening everyone's eyes to the possibilities. YES!! Change is tough and is often quite difficult to digest, but it is inevidable. With a positive outlook and with optimistic thinking it 'can work', but it will take time. I don't think the Belle Haven citizens were 'thrown under the bus' by the results of the day's imaginative scenarios. I think they now have some 'HOPE' for a better 'revived' community. Remember - Negative thoughts don't produce positive results.


    OK, so 'Charrette' is a defined term and practice, developed over the past 30 years by New Urbanists and adopted and adapted by the larger world - but it always holds true a number of things, key of which is the public involvement and the bringing together of ALL impacted parties in order to achieve a design/solution that is the best possible and addresses all of the objections and stumbling blocks at once. It streamlines the public process by facilitating conversation. It puts all of the stuff in one place and works through it holistically and at different scales to make sure the interoperation that is critical to real world functioning actually exists.

    What FB did was a design session, but it did not engage the local community at large, it did not provide them access at any point to the design process or the decision makers, it did not bring all of the creatives dealing with different components together in order to see the big connected picture ... I could go on. Oh, and their designs and solutions SUCK. They seem to have done no real research on what a good urban place is or should be, what makes it that way, what makes it hard to be that way or who understood those things. They just grabbed a bunch of people who were happy to work pro-bono in order to have their names attached to a big FB Press-Orgy. I may be exaggerating and there may be some great urbanists and architects involved, I haven't really looked at the list yet - but looking at the concepts I'm concerned.

    And I don't like having my beloved 'Charrette' attached to what went on and what will come out of it. Its a gross misrepresentation, libelous almost.

    If you're more curious about charrettes: and I can recommend other reading as well.

  • Robert L. Sandusky

    What a day! Like brainstorming on steroids, this charrette was probably enjoyable for most of the 4 busloads of designers. Lots of ideas. Too bad the residents who live in the "scruffy" community didn't get to engage in the design process too, as say" Team Gray". They might have had some interesting insights on how the design "solutions" might actually work out and how they would impact Belle Havens citizens and Facebook as well. As it is they are left to wonder, "Where do we move to when we get thrown under the 'wheels of gentrification' "?