Today, Facebook announced preliminary plans for an expansion of its Menlo Park campus. The master plan, designed by OMA, will include a grocery store, retail space, publicly accessible parks and greenways, 1,500 housing units, a hotel, and a cultural center. But more than anything, Facebook’s announcement emphasizes one thing: a strong relationship with the surrounding community. While other tech companies have been criticized for their isolationist approach to their neighbors, Facebook wants to take a different approach.
“Working with the community, our goal for the Willow Campus is to create an integrated, mixed-use village that will provide much needed services, housing and transit solutions as well as office space,” John Tenanes, vice president of global facilities and real estate at Facebook, writes in a release. “Part of our vision is to create a neighborhood center that provides long-needed community services.”
A major impetus of “Willow Campus,” as the master plan is named, is alleviating traffic congestion wrought by the commute to Menlo Park, which employees loathe. Moreover, commuters are creating congestion on San Francisco Bay Area’s highways and contributing to carbon emissions. In 2015, the company even offered a $10,000 bonus for employees to live closer to its headquarters.
Unlike Apple’s insular walled garden, Facebook is proposing a walkable neighborhood that’s open and accessible to the public. In its promotional video, members from Facebook’s real estate, sustainability, and policy teams stress how the development is designed to be a village that will create community, economic opportunities, and add density necessary to support more public transportation infrastructure. This all sounds good on paper–though good intentions are common in development in Silicon Valley, while outcomes frequently fall short.
The project is still its nascent stages; OMA tells Co.Design the master plan is still in progress and Facebook has yet to file official plans to city officials, which it expects to do this summer. Then it plans to engage in a back and forth with local government and community groups during the review process.
The project’s renderings and conceptual model are scant on details about how this village will become part of the adjacent community, but the pitch for the project is fully developed. Facebook talks about Willow Campus in distinctly Facebook terms: community, community, community. Bucolic renderings show families frolicking in verdant fields, people walking their dogs, and racially diverse (but economically homogenous) shoppers on a manicured downtown-like streetscape.
“What is important to Facebook is the fact that the campus needs to be integrated into the community and there are pathways and connections so that neighbors feel like they can access the community, and the amenities, and the retail stores,” Tenanes says in the video. “What you’ll see is a series of connections, bridges, and crosswalks that bring our campus–our village–into Belle Haven.”
Belle Haven is one of the adjacent neighborhoods to the campus, which is separated by a busy road. While Menlo Park as a whole is predominately white (about 60% according to the 2010 Census) and affluent (median income in 2010 was $107,000 per year, the 2010 Census reported), Belle Haven is 65% Hispanic or Latino and has a median income of $49,228. Actually integrating the community will take more than crosswalks and pedestrian bridges and will hinge on details like signage, the businesses that occupy the retail spaces, the landscape architecture, and public programs and outreach.
Facebook says 15% of residential units will be below market rate, but in an area where median home prices are well over $1,000,000, that doesn’t necessarily translate to affordability. (And it should be noted that in neighboring Cupertino, generic ranch houses across from Apple Park jumped from an average cost of $750,ooo in 2011 to $1.8 million today.)
As of now, it’s hard to argue with Facebook’s ambitions or its checklist of elements found in “good” urban spaces. Yet it will be the specifics that prove Facebook is investing more than lip service into this idea as the project is developed. Otherwise, Willow Campus might physically look like an open and accessible neighborhood, but still be as insular and isolated as some of Facebook’s competitors.