Facebook is quietly expanding its reach into the real estate business, with sights on adding corporate housing for its worker bees as well as the possibility of building a “Facebook hotel.”
The Silicon Valley social media giant is currently hoping Menlo Park will rezone a swath of land to allow the company to build 1,500 units of housing for its employees at 1 Hacker Way — Facebook's first foray into corporate housing. According to the agreement with the city, only Facebook employees could live there, meaning that spouses who don't work there and children would not be allowed.
"I think it's great that Facebook would provide on-campus dorms," architect and planning commissioner Henry Riggs said, who added that he believes transportation is a bigger issue than housing in Silicon Valley. "Some people want Facebook to do more. But I think they're really stepping forward."
As to fears that Facebook is building an evil "Company Town" where the boss controls where employees work and play, Riggs emphatically said "no."
"There's a huge difference," he said. "When you worked for Pullman, that's pretty much the only place there was to live. The general store was the only place to buy. Here, it's flipped the other way around. Facebook units are a very small unit of housing; they're just providing an alternative."
The planning commission discussed Facebook's desire to have the general plan amended on Monday night. It was in the context of a larger conversation about the overall vision of Menlo Park. Nothing was decided upon, commissioners said, as there was plenty of debate about how to address the balance of housing, jobs and transportation.
Providing housing to employees is not common in this day and age. Google, Apple and Microsoft don't offer it, for example. But in the past, companies such as Hershey's in Pennsylvania and George Pullman in Chicago provided places to live for its employees, giving rise to the phrase "Company Town." These towns were built with the idea of being industrial utopias, but often were criticized for being places where workers could never escape the boss's watchful eye.
At the same time the corporate housing plan is moving forward, Facebook is also hoping the zoning changes will be made to accommodate a piece of land it owns on Willow Road that was once owned by Prologis. Facebook is hoping the property could become a mixed-used development with offices, up to 2,000 residential units and stores, although Menlo Park City Planner Deanna Chow said on Wednesday there are no official Facebook projects "on the books" at the moment because the city's general plan is still being considered.
Facebook wouldn’t say much about this mixed-used project, either.
Still, the company issued this general statement to NBC Bay Area: “Menlo Park is a great place to live, and work and we're invested in the community’s future. The City of Menlo Park's General Plan Update has the potential to provide community benefits including new housing, solutions to alleviate traffic, and additional services and retail options that will benefit everyone. With the General Plan Update, the City is providing solutions to regional challenges, which will strengthen our community and improve quality of life in the area.”
But housing isn't all that Facebook is interested in. On Tuesday night, the Menlo Park City Council will consider the company's hopes to build two 75-foot-tall office buildings, a 200-room hotel and bike path.
In March 2015, Hibiscus Properties, on behalf of Facebook, submitted an application for those plans to be built on the former TE Connectivity Campus to campus along Constitution Drive between Chilco Street and Willow Road.
If history is any indication, Menlo Park has given the thumbs up to Facebook’s other real estate proposals. In 2013, the city council approved “all requested land use entitlements and agreements for the Facebook West Campus Project,” including the company’s rezoning requests.
As a requirement of that approval, Facebook had to provide the city with a certain amount of affordable housing. The result was 15 units of Facebook-provided affordable housing units at “Anton Menlo,” on Haven Avenue. The complex, which is still being built, offers a total of 394 units studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments just two miles from company headquarters.
Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline, who works in public relations, said this "work-live-play" ethos of Facebook is a model for what other companies should be doing.
"Facebook is a hyper-growth company, and they're building a modern-day 'Company Town,' where they are supplying their young workers with a great level of service. They should be creating these "Facebook Villages" in Fremont, Oakland and around the Bay Area. That would change everything. That's the future of the 'Company Town.'"