A fleet of sleek, black buses designed to cut down on the amount of traffic generated by Facebook's 1,000 employees in the Stanford Research Park has some College Terrace neighborhood residents wearing ear plugs and begging for relief.
The buses -- some carrying up to 40 people -- circulate most of the day at 2- to 5-minute intervals past homes on South California Avenue on their route to and from company buildings in the Research Park.
Facebook ironically added the shuttle service to address residents' concerns about car-choked neighborhood streets. Now residents are saying the buses have become the very traffic nuisance they were supposed to help eliminate.
Facebook and College Terrace residents are facing a conundrum that often plagues companies and residents who reside cheek by jowl: how to satisfy the needs of both parties without impinging on the rights of either.
The problem is growing throughout Palo Alto and is apt to take on many forms -- noise complaints and more -- in the years to come, according to Curtis Williams, the City of Palo Alto's planning director. Conflicts have arisen in commercial-residential areas such as University South, Downtown North and near the new Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in south Palo Alto, according to Williams.
The Facebook clash is magnified because, unlike in downtown areas, it is a single company that has changed the tenor of life in one location, he said.
The company ferries employees from as far away as San Francisco and from the two Caltrain stations in town to its buildings at 1050 Page Mill Road and 1601 California Ave., which are 0.4 miles apart. Three sizes of shuttles are used -- 40, 28 and 14 seaters.
The noise begins at 7 a.m. and continues until midnight, residents said.
Fred Balin, College Terrace Residents Association secretary, said his family has had to find ways to cope.
"If we put in earplugs at night, it's not that bad," he said.
Robin Reddell, who lives on Amherst Street adjacent to the upper Facebook site, said the gear shifting and constant back-up beeping has been a distraction that disrupts her sleep and makes it hard to concentrate.
"The sound of the vans has been pretty constant," she said.
Residents say they counted 56 buses in four hours on Monday (July 19). Claiming that in most cases, the shuttles carried zero to three persons, they call the Facebook transit system "overkill."
Last Thursday afternoon, a 14-seat shuttle waited under a shade tree outside 1601 California to pick up employees. Several people exited the structure and walked down the terrace, ignoring the bus.
The driver exited, calling out an invitation to a young woman setting off down the hill.
"No, thanks. I prefer to walk. It's a beautiful day," the female worker said.
Brent Barker, president of the College Terrace Residents Association, said neighbors want Facebook to eliminate the large- and medium-sized buses.
They also want Facebook to address another issue: the bus route, which passes their homes on California rather than taking Page Mill. The buses go from the upper site (1601 California) down California, cut across a driveway and a parking lot between 1117 and 975 California to access Page Mill. They drive to 1050 Page Mill and then circle back on Hanover Street to return to California Avenue and the upper campus.
It's designed so that the buses avoid two stoplights, they said they've been told.
Residents propose the buses could loop through the campus to avoid the lights.
Changing the route and the bus sizes "would solve 90 percent of the problem," Barker said.
Facebook has been seeking solutions, company spokesman Larry Yu said Monday. It removed a bus staging area from behind 975 California and reduced the number of buses exiting onto California Avenue. The route was changed so buses would not run along the lower part of California Avenue and El Camino Real.
Facebook is looking at the size of the shuttles and for ways to further decrease the impact, he said. He acknowledged a shuttle does run after midnight to the Caltrain station as a way to encourage workers who want to work late and to reduce traffic.
In May, Facebook moved half its staff to the Page Mill building.
Eileen and Richard Stolee live on California across from the driveway where the buses all turn in.
"We're at ground zero. If I'm sitting in my back garden, it's constant noise," Eileen Stolee said.
Stolee said she believes the problem can be solved to everyone's benefit just by "tweaking it a little bit. It's a matter of will on their part. I don't think they get that this is impacting real, live people," she said.
The situation is not unique to Facebook, nor is it new, according to Williams, the city's planning director.
"Conflict comes about because of the change of (building) uses over time," he said.
During the dot-com boom, city officials heard similar complaints as an influx of law offices and technology companies with higher employee ratios entered the Research Park, Williams said.
The unpredictable nature of business trends make zoning regulations and ordinances a moving target, Williams said. Large parking areas required for one type of business can quickly turn into a large unused space when that business moves out and is replaced by company with fewer employees, he said.
There are vast differences in land uses within the Research Park. Electric-auto manufacturer Tesla Motors is leasing a 300,000-square-foot site but has only 300 employees, according to Stanford University spokeswoman Jean McCown.
Similarly, downtown Palo Alto has also seen its share of conflict as companies such as IDEO and Palantir have grown downtown, Williams said.
To the south, the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life took over an industrial site on Charleston Road next to Space Systems Loral, which has created frustrations for both business and residents, Williams said.
Williams anticipates a continuing conflict at Stanford Research Park, as the lines between residential and commercial space become increasingly blurred.
In 2013, the upper Facebook site is scheduled to become higher-density housing. The homes will overlook the lower-density single-family houses and will bring traffic into upper College Terrace.