When Facebook announced it was relocating its headquarters to the Sun Microsystems campus in the Menlo Park area there were many mixed emotions. With bright eyed optimism Facebook has approached the move as not just gaining much needed space for the growing company, but also as an opportunity to have a vested interest in the adjacent Belle Haven neighborhood. Sun Microsystems is a 57-acre campus with 11 interconnected buildings complete with marshlands and the Bayshore Expressway as its borders; a clearly introverted campus and typical Silicon Valley image of a stale tinted window office park. Facebook however has set out to provide a more inspiring place for their employees (their former Palo Alto campus was nicknamed the Bunker).
Whether you call it a design charrette or in Facebook terms a hackathon, recently the AIA San Mateo and the city of Menlo Park gathered by the busloads over 150 architects, urban planners, and students along with local citizens for a 12-hour fast-paced collaborative design session to re-imagine the Menlo Park’s Belle Haven community. Red, Yellow, Blue and Green teams of 20-40 people were given free rain to let their imaginations run wild, designers first toured the campus and surrounding community and then hunkered down to discuss how the local amenities could be improved, the fortress feel of the campus could be overcome, and how to thoughtfully connect the new headquarters with the outside world.
A pinup presentation by each group took place at the end of the day full of ideas to create a sense of community incorporating Facebook (or should we say the other way around). Reoccurring themes consisted of adding additional entrances from the surrounding neighborhood and creating a dense area of restaurants, retail and transit adjacent to the Facebook campus.
The ideas of a less asphalt, walkable, vibrant residential and business area some straightforward others utopian, left Facebook’s John Tenanes director of real estate “very emotional. They’re all really great ideas. I’m going to take these back to Facebook and present them to the entire company. I like the idea of taking advantage of the bay land right next door. I like the idea of connecting the rail line, which right now isn’t active. If it was active, we could us e that to get Facebook employees to the campus.”
A few proposed ideas from Teams Red, Blue, Yellow, and Green:
Team Red’s ideas included an elevated walkway that touches down at four corners and connects the neighborhood, campus, future transit station, and restored wetlands.
Team Blue suggested Facebook move the security perimeter closer the the buildings allowing for walkways and cantilevered boardwalks providing for more access points to engage the revitalized marshland and salt ponds. Bioswales could drain hardscape runoff and some paved areas could be refashioned into rec areas.
Team Yellow focused on adjusting the current zoning codes offering that higher density mixed use infill housing. They envisioned energy efficient residences and community amenities such as community gardens, parks, and gourmet food trucks.
Team Green imagined a renovated gateway leading to the Facebook campus combining an iconic new rail depot. The depot could have solar panels high density housing and a neighborhood visitor center and 24/7 amenities for around the clock Facebookers.
Facebook took the ideas and left with excitement. Citizens were cautiously optimistic. The question yet to be answered, is Facebook inventive enough to chart a different course than the standard stagnant fortress type campuses; creating a headquarters that engages its surrounding community, capitalizing on the ideas from some of the best design professionals in the Bay area and making them reality? Will they take advantage of existing infrastructure and see the surrounding wetlands as an asset, developing thoughtful, scale appropriate retail and shopping for employees and Belle Haven citizens? Either way, whether they are just trying to woo residents for the time being or intend to implement community-oriented design, only time will tell.