Loeb Fellows to Facebook: Think Regionally

Last month, when Facebook invited Loeb alums to its newly expanded corporate headquarters as part of a bus tour of Silicon Valley, it realized it had an informal braintrust it could mine for ideas about a variety of challenges Facebook is facing in supporting its workforce. The bus tour, filled with folks in town for the 2016 Bay Area Fall Study Tour, took a route that also encompassed the new transit oriented Union City Station District and major projects in San Francisco’s Central and Southern waterfront, including Hunter’s Point Shipyard, Pier 70 and Mission Bay. But the new Frank Gehry Facebook campus was a singular draw for the Loebs, many of whom observe the modern tech economy from the sidelines but have considerable experience with the societal, urban issues with which the company is struggling.

Since its founding in 2008, Facebook has grown to 12 thousand employees and a market value of hundreds of billions of dollars. With this astronomical growth have come challenges with housing and transportation for its workers and questions of corporate responsibility. Its large campus–nearly 80 acres of former Sun Microsystems campus and adjacent land in Menlo Park–sits on the bay estuary. The new office addition designed by Gehry is a huge single story, single room warehouse. The view from its green roof (one of the largest in the world) takes in the adjacent bay and the very low income community of East Palo Alto, laying bare the extremes of income levels in that area. While many of its workers commute from San Francisco, transportation is complicated from the city to the campus, which is over a mile from the Caltrain station. The company has generated controversy by running shuttles to and from San Francisco for its workers.

The Loeb visitors spent nearly 3 hours touring the campus and discussing several overlapping areas of concern: housing, transport, opportunities, and partnerships. They jammed a giant whiteboard with post-its. While there were very specific recommendations aimed at improving housing and transport, as well as building capacity within the local labor force, visitors encouraged Facebook to think regionally. They urged the firm to continue its participation in regional conversations about housing and transportation, and to make sure a wide variety of sectors is at the table: government, business, community representatives, residents. Collaborators should include tech peers and other businesses, local housing administrations, nonprofit housing providers, planners, transportation officials and advocates, and healthcare players. The overarching message was to examine how Facebook’s own interests intersect with larger social problems in the Bay Area as a whole, and to use its considerable visibility and reach for positive social equity impact.

Housing

Facebook attracts a dynamic young workforce from around the country, but workers have difficulty finding affordable and desirable places to live. Many favor San Francisco, the country’s hottest (read most expensive) housing market. In addition, the housing stock surrounding the campus is single family and very pricey, so the issues affect even the highest paid employees.

The housing crisis in the Bay area is a regional problem, the roots of which include longstanding state funding formulas that translate to incentives for business development and disincentives to build housing, perceived as a drain on municipal services and resources. Removing barriers to sufficient and affordable housing involves identifying adverse policies and jurisdictional boundaries at every level, starting with the state’s nearly 40 year old property tax capping measure, Proposition 13.

Loebs suggested near term and longer term fixes that can take advantage of Facebook’s wealth and clout: investing in transit oriented development and higher density communities; supporting smaller, less expensive housing prototypes­–including micro units and accessory dwelling units, even houseboats. They proposed that Facebook start a housing equity fund or become an equity partner in new housing that includes a range of affordability, so that “service” staff can also afford to live there. Or purchase land for a housing land trust to preserve long term affordability. They also cautioned about the risks of longtime resident displacement in lower income areas that may become more desirable and vulnerable to gentrification, like East Palo Alto.

Other tech firms facing these problems are likely partners for a consortium to advocate and act on key housing priorities and related funding issues. Moreover, Facebook can make common cause with existing organizations that are providing compelling ideas and leadership for regional infrastructure and housing solutions: SPUR–San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, Bay Area Council, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Association of Bay Area Governments, and others. 

Transport

Facebook inefficiently runs hundreds of busses to pick up employees in San Francisco and drop them at the campus; the busses are sometimes empty. Like the film lots of the 1930s and '40s, the firm provides bikes workers can use to ride around among the buildings.

Many suggestions directed Facebook to rethink its investment in proprietary busses and bikes in favor of supporting better public transport and community share options. In the immediate area and future there could be a bike share from Caltrain station, or subsidized community use of the shuttle busses. Running beside the campus is an unused rail line that connects to the existing Caltrain line and could be restored as a live spur, or a dedicated bus road, or a bike and pedestrian pathway.

Visitors also addressed the lack of direct transport across the South Bay and the need to advocate for better regional intermodal transport, including passenger and freight capacity. Pressing to accelerate the restoration of the Dumbarton Rail corridor would benefit communities from San Francisco to San Jose. One of the less conventional ideas included building a floating bridge across the bay which would adjust to sea level rise.

Youth and Workforce Development

Loebs advised Facebook to take a systematic approach to youth and workforce development over time, starting with early childhood education and extending through university. Mentoring, volunteering in schools, sponsoring innovative programs in schools, and hosting apprentices and interns were all on the table. Loebs also encouraged Facebook to seek out partnerships with low income communities of color, like East Palo Alto and Bayview Hunters Point, and to support programs like the St. Anthony’s Tenderloin Technology Lab, which equips formerly homeless skilled workers for jobs and internships. 

Investment in Community

The tech community values disruption and a rapid pace of change, but the Loebs cautioned that solving Facebook’s problems will require prioritizing building relationships and trust over moving fast; building coalitions takes time and persistent, patient effort. While short term experiments can pave the way to longer term solutions, Facebook can engender trust by supporting initiatives and organizations that are already working and already have community confidence.

The firm was encouraged to break down barriers between campus and local communities and create a role of “chief partnership officer,” integrating the concepts of partnership into all its decisions that impact the larger community. Facebook can encourage employee volunteerism and participation in local schools, community organizations, planning boards, and nonprofits. It can identify goods and services procurement opportunities that support local small businesses. In addition to the housing and transportation needs it shares with local communities, it can identify ways to meet other shared needs: for instance, disaster preparedness, green technology, community agriculture. Doing so can help it meet the challenge to convince the community it will be a real partner.

Facebook has distinctive resources to apply to these issues. It has funds for philanthropy and expertise. It represents a powerful market. It has extraordinary visibility, communication capabilities, and reach. It is a leader in social media and it is poised to become a leader in social equity if it embraces this imperative. The Loebs will be rooting for that.

Some additional reading:

Rethinking the Corporate Campus

What Tech Hasn't Learned from Urban Planning

Facebook Plays It Safe

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