“There’s been a lot of uneducated headlines about ‘new cities’ and things of that nature,” Willow Village spokesperson Adam Alberti told SFGATE. “It’s not that big. It’s not a city; it’s a mixed-use project that connects the existing campus to the neighborhood.”
It’s true that Willow Village — planned to cover 1.6 million square feet at the current site of an industrial warehouse complex — is smaller than your average city, and will not be incorporated, but the site will include a supermarket, a pharmacy, cafes, a 193-room hotel and a “town square.” Surrounding the site will be 1.25 million square-feet of new Facebook office space and 1,729 apartments.
This kind of venture would have been called a “company town” a century ago — i.e. a settlement where all stores and housing are owned by one company, which also serves as the main employer. Those midcentury company towns became a symbol of the overreach of American capitalism. Many of the “utopian” settlements are seen as exploitative and controlling, with residents’ lives at the mercy of the corporation. After their decrease in popularity, and the collapse of the companies that built them, many ended up as all but ghost towns.
Facebook prefers to refer to their development as a village, complex or neighborhood extension.
“The ‘company town’ moniker is cute, but the residential units that are being built there will be open to the public,” Alberti said.
“Right now, they’re envisioned as being public,” he added when pressed on if any of the units will be designated for Facebook employees. “That’s not to say Facebook won’t lease some.”
After Menlo Park city officials pushed back during the comment period last year to make housing a priority, Facebook reworked their plans. The latest footprint has reduced office space and increased housing, and will provide both more affordable housing and housing for seniors. Around 320 of the units will be now be affordable homes versus 225 in the original plan.
The village will border East Palo Alto, a city with a largely Latino population and a median household income of $67,000, a per capita income of $27,000 and a poverty rate of 13.5 percent. Though the exact rental cost of those affordable units was not disclosed, the Willow Village spokesperson told SFGATE that they “will meet or exceed the city of Menlo Park’s affordable housing policies.”
“Listening, understanding and delivering the features that our neighbors most want has been central to our process at Willow Village,” said Mike Ghielmetti, president of Signature Development Group, the Oakland developers leading the project with Facebook. “Balancing jobs and housing, delivering the grocery store, helping manage traffic impacts, providing affordable housing, especially for our seniors, these were the priorities that our neighbors and Menlo Park leaders directly asked us to solve.”
The new plans also added a large glass dome housing a “collaborative area” for Facebook workers that leads to a two-acre elevated community park, bearing a striking resemblance to the Salesforce Park in downtown San Francisco or the High Line in New York.
“Raised 30 feet above ground level, the park stretches along an approximately one-quarter-mile long open space overlook with walking and biking trails and landscaping spanning roughly 50 to 80 feet wide,” Facebook says. “It will provide views south over Willow Village and Town Square, north to the wetlands and east towards the bay, and feature children’s play areas, shading canopies, and seating.”
Facebook says the changes, made in response to community concerns, also “reduced traditional office space and number of planned employees onsite by approximately 30 percent.”
“We have always believed that Willow Village will be most successful through significant collaboration with the community,” said John Tenanes, vice president of real estate for Facebook. “Our investment in this process is essential to ensuring that Willow Village will serve the whole community — not just at buildout, but over the long term.”
Facebook is not the first tech company to move into building mini-towns this year. Google recently got approval to develop “Downtown West,” an 80-acre city within a city in downtown San Jose. Meanwhile in Texas, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is buying up property in the remote bayside town of Boca Chica on the Rio Grande, to outrage and allegations of bullying from some longtime residents.