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.”

About the author

Ryan White is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He writes about the environment, health, technology, and culture.