Greater Greater Washington

Development


GGW debates Facebook's new apartment complex

Facebook will help finance an apartment complex for employees and low-income households near its Menlo Park, California headquarters. It's the city's first housing development in 20 years. Will Anton Menlo be a 21st-century "company town," or could it ease Silicon Valley's transportation and housing issues?


Rendering of Anton Menlo from KTGY Group, the project's architect.

In a new feature, we asked 5 contributors to offer their thoughts.

Neil Flanagan:
Facebook's sponsorship is really the only unusual feature of this project. Developers are already large corporations who must look for investors that believe the profitability of a project. The kind of directness Facebook brings does cast a specter of trying to insulate and isolate the residents. Given that there's not much street life around it, isolation might be unavoidable. If the street urbanizes further, this might get more complicated.

Here, as is common when large suburban properties become residential complexes, developers often fill out street networks that remain private. Perhaps what we should worry about is how much of this new urban vitality remains exclusive. Bringing it closer to home, the private courtyard at CityCenter DC looks really promising as an urban space. How will it shape up as a public space? Will the whole city feel welcome there?


Facebook's current and future headquarters buildings in relation to the Anton Menlo.

Canaan Merchant:
I first heard about the new Facebook apartments from ValleyWag, which said the project includes "all the comforts of suburbia" and proceeded to tear down particular aspects on the project including the fact that it is compact and walkable. It's reflective of an attitude that I often see expressed in a lot of thinking about our built areas, that usually boils down to the argument that the suburbs are "fake" and the city is "real."

Instead of worrying about authenticity, I would prefer that we would worry about the factors we can control. Is it walkable? Are the public spaces inviting and successful? Is there diversity in the design? Would I feel comfortable biking in the street? I think those are the important things to consider, rather than the name or company behind the construction.

Payton Chung:
I applaud any attempt to build infill multifamily in Silicon Valley, and corporate leadership as part of a broader effort to reshape the Valley, but few individual employers can hope to constructively engage such a vast problem.

Upon first glance, Anton Menlo's site plan doesn't looks too surprising: a typical "Texas donut," similar to other wood-frame apartments you see around, say, the Vienna Metro station. Half of the roadways will read as streets, with sidewalks and parallel parking, and the much-ballyhooed amenities aren't atypical for new apartments these days.

Media ruckus aside, Facebook isn't diversifying into town-building, and understandably so, since such corporate experiments in non-core businesses have a poor track record (perhaps aside from university towns). Instead, it's simply supporting a suburban apartment developer with experience in the matter, but also a formulaic product.

Yet this location contributes to the Valley's record of poorly coordinated planning: it's marooned between warehouses, the Bay, and a freeway, a location perhaps
akin to these apartments in Alexandria's Eisenhower Valley. Building housing close to work is a nice idea, but this particular implementation undermines, rather than facilitates, the Valley's emergence as an urban place.

Tracey Johnstone:
Company housing, such as Facebook is developing, could be helpful in creating a sense of community among its employees just as military housing does in the military. The high tech business is a volatile one, and it demands long hours from its employees.

Having neighbors who understand those demands might ease some of the high stress of working in that industry. If Facebook employees/tenants decide they don't like living there or don't want to be so dependent upon Facebook, their salaries make it possible for them to move elsewhere.


Amazon's buildings in South Lake Union. Photo By edgeplot on Flickr.

Amazon.com went the opposite direction of Facebook. It chose to locate its offices in a benighted corner of Seattle, adjacent its heart. It turned South Lake Union around and is now a strong anchor along the city's streetcar and light rail stations.

David Edmondson:
Investments from other large companies helped turn around downtown Detroit and downtown Las Vegas, too. Though Menlo Park is not a prime urban center like Seattle, its strong bones have been weakened by parking lots and the signs of suburbia.

Yet rather than invest near its high-capacity Caltrain station, the heart of downtown, Facebook chose to redevelop an industrial site 3 miles away, on the other side of a freeway. While housing plus offices is certainly a step forward from the office park, one hopes our cities and suburban town centers will see more Amazons, not more Facebooks.

What do you think about this project? How involved should employers be in the real estate choices of their employees? Got an idea for future GGW debates posts? Let us know in the comments.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He writes on architecture and Russia at цarьchitect

Comments

Add a comment »

The site itself seems very isolated and industrial but I suppose you can't expecton development to change the style of the area. That is all too bad because the Bay Area enjoys a climate that is really supportive of active transportation, except maybe it gets a bit warm in the summer(?), which I would say is a top factor in developing street life. The plan itself has none of the hallmarks of engaging street life which is somewhat understandable giving surrounding uses and major highways. In a similar vein there is a huge waterfront park nearby with no comfortable pedestrian access! I hope if Facebook does get more involve they use that leverage to support bike and pedestrian infrastructure and street facing community retail that is supportive of further redevelopment.

by BTA on Oct 16, 2013 10:52 am • linkreport

The more relevant issue is that these companies continue to build in their HQs in an isolated suburban office park/college campus style instead of building in large downtowns with existing transportation infrastructure.

Until you fix that problem you will by neccessity have all the other issues associated with such developments.

by TomA on Oct 16, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

TomA +1. Like the Apple spaceship, you'd think these progressive hipsters would get their bosses to build in downtown, to say nothing of the environmental positives.

As for this company town, looks like a giant apartment complex with nice ammenities. Not as nice as Pullman town aesthetically, but I'm not sure who'd live in thier work environment, unless you had to.

by Thayer-D on Oct 16, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

What does this have to do with Greater Washington?

by Josh on Oct 16, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

This is a nightmare. It isolates Facebook employees, who choose to live in these units, from reality. It's corporate inbreeding. It's reinforcing group-think. This a business that is playing a major role in shaping privacy in this nation, and how we interact as a community. It has enormous power. Facebook employees should be encourage, instead, to live in diverse communities, and interact with people who aren't part of this culture.

by kob on Oct 16, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

@TomA: the trouble for many large, growing companies is that we've made downtown office towers so difficult to build that generally the only large blocks of contiguous space available are in suburban locations. Facebook, for instance, has space needs growing at 50% a year, so buying Sun Microsystems' 1-million-square-foot campus and some adjacent development parcels was by far the fastest way to meet its office needs. Fast-growing companies just can't wait years and years for downtown space.

by Payton Chung on Oct 16, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

@kob: you're joking, right?
@Josh: because the DC Metro region can learn from others' successes and mistakes
@David: downtown MP has height limits, like many of the peninsula cities. There simply isn't enough space for FB to build, either out or up. Unfortunately, to do business in the area most large companies look at the office park solution on the other side of 101.

by Mark on Oct 16, 2013 5:51 pm • linkreport

@Mark

I figured zoning kept the downtown looks as it does. One thing a large employer can bring when approaching a city like Menlo Park is leverage. "We can help you make the town you always wanted, but can you raise the height limits to 45ft from 35ft?"

I understand some cities might react with hostility to think of raising a height ceiling, and I'm unsure of the nuances of development politics in Menlo Park, but Facebook could have tried.

by David Edmondson on Oct 16, 2013 6:18 pm • linkreport

@Mark

>you're joking, right?<

No

by kob on Oct 17, 2013 10:03 am • linkreport

It's fine to encourage and want to people to live in diverse communities but there are limits. I don't know the demographics of Menlo park off hand but I know the bay areas housing crunch is extreme. It's not unreasonable to suppose that one may have to choose between living in a diverse/inclusive community and living at the development here where your costs will be lower (factoring in commute costs).

Personally, if my choice was limited to a diverse community far from work vs. A less diverse one that enabled me to live without relying on a car I'd choose the latter. Again, it's important to judge the projects on its merits as an urban place (which is admittedly not great, but not awful either) rather than project ones feelings about Facebook and their impact on our digital lives.

by Canaan on Oct 17, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

because Facebook employees are only going to interact with people they meet in real life, in their neighborhood. They wouldn't keep in touch daily with people they haven't physically met in 10 years.

Wait, what?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 17, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

@Canaan

Facebook easily has 5K+ plus employees, so the amount of housing it is planning can only support a tiny fraction. Facebook has a high percentage of international workers who may be interested in short-term stays of a few years or less. It also recruits nationwide and Facebook-owned housing may serve as a way for new employees from distant parts to make an easy transition to more permanent housing. It may even give them a recruitment edge. Perhaps that is what Facebook is thinking. And as you point out, the Bay Area and the Valley generally have very high housing costs, so it's easy to see real benefits to this housing.

On the broader scale, you could argue that most of Silicon Valley is already an island apart, so the addition of Facebook's housing is just an extension of the Valley's already somewhat apart culture.

All this said, I still find the concept troubling. By clustering employees in housing, Facebook is reducing the already declining separation between work and community, thanks to BYOD, 24x7 access. Considering the outsize role Facebook has on key policy issues, as well as many of its tech firms neighbors, if this becomes a trend it may work to reinforce corporate directions and help isolate these firms from the thinking of people who find some aspects of social media worrisome.

by kob on Oct 17, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

Maybe, but I don't know what you do about that. Facebook is a lucrative company to work for so people who'd rather keep work at a 9-5 schedule are already self selecting themselves out of working there. Those who do apply typically want to be working a lot because it's what they like to do.

Are there issues with that? Sure but by giving them a place to live you can see a beneficial effect to someone who wants to be in Silicon Valley so they can start there own thing and don't have to compete in a bigger pool for housing.

by Canaan on Oct 17, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

*lucrative company to work for, to be specific.

by Canaan on Oct 17, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us

How can our region be greater?

DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC