It's hard to imagine a better example of how messed up our region's planning processes and development policies are than Facebook's latest proposal to build nine new office buildings totaling 1.75 million square feet, likely to be occupied by up to 10,000 new employees, while eventually constructing 1,500 rental apartment units.
That is the gist of a proposal for a new "Willow Campus" on a 59-acre Facebook-owned site a short distance from its existing headquarters on Bayfront Expressway in eastern Menlo Park.
And this latest proposal is in addition to the almost 1 million square feet of previously approved new office space that Facebook currently has under construction, 207,000 square feet it will lease in the huge Menlo Gateway development off Marsh Road that is nearing completion and the 1.8 million square feet of office space the company already occupies.
In effect, the Willow Campus is being proposed as a self-contained residential, retail and commercial district with retail stores, restaurants, a grocery store, hotel and everything residents and workers need. Viewed out of context, it's a beautifully conceived project.
But planning is all about context and how a community wishes to steer and control development to achieve its goals.
The Facebook proposal, which was submitted to the city of Menlo Park last week, is seizing on the opportunity provided by the city's newly adopted general plan, approved last November by the Menlo Park City Council. That plan established growth targets for the area bounded roughly by U.S. Highway 101, Marsh Road, the bay and the East Palo Alto city boundary, including a total of 2.3 million square feet of nonresidential development through 2040.
While Facebook, as an individual property owner, is under no obligation under Menlo Park's rules to develop any housing or amenities as it plans for its growth and need for more office space, its plan will drastically worsen the region's housing problem. And under the proposal most of the apartments won't even be built until after the completion of most of the commercial space, expected to be around 2025.
The results of the company's PR efforts of the last few days to shape the story are as impressive as they are misleading. The Guardian published a story Sunday headlined "Facebook addresses Silicon Valley's affordable housing crisis" (then later changed the headline to "Facebook village? Social media giant to build 'social housing'") and on Tuesday Slate followed suit with "Facebook is building a 'village' for its workers. More big companies should do that."
The sad reality is that Facebook's development plans, combined with the large office and hotel developments under construction in the same area by the Bohannon Development Company, will only put the region's housing market under greater pressure. Adding 10,000 jobs and 1,500 apartment units means that Facebook alone could have as many as 7,000 new (and highly paid) employees competing for places to live on the Peninsula or elsewhere, adding to the already horrendous commute situation.
Far from addressing the Valley's affordable-housing crisis, this will only add to it. Housing costs will rise, the existing semi-affordable home and apartments in east Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and Redwood City will be priced higher as leases renew and the gentrification of these communities will accelerate. Where will the thousands of lower-paid service workers required to support these new developments live?
Menlo Park city officials, including Mayor Kirsten Keith, who express delight at Facebook's proposal and explain this is just what the city had in mind when it approved its new general plan last year, do a disservice to their constituents and to the region.
A plan that allows for significant increases in employment by approving new, higher density commercial development is a plan that is divorced from the realities of our housing and transportation challenges. It makes those challenges all the more difficult to address and threatens to further erode our region's diversity, affordability and quality of life.
The message to property owners, including Facebook, should be that housing development must far outpace and precede any new commercial development, and it must itself be preceded by transportation initiatives that reduce current traffic congestion and increase transit options.
Menlo Park needs to recognize the fallacy of land-use policies that encourage more office development and a worsening of our regional housing and transportation problems. Otherwise everyone except the developers loses in the long run.
We hope Menlo Park officials also recognize why they should immediately engage their counterparts in neighboring Redwood City, East Palo Alto and Palo Alto in discussions over the Facebook proposal. The regional impacts of what Menlo Park will be considering are enormous, and we hope this might finally lead to long overdue collaborative problem-solving among Midpeninsula leaders.