Cover story: Building Bridges

As Facebook grows, it works to make Belle Haven neighbors into friends

When Facebook moved its first employees into the old Sun Microsystems campus in Menlo Park in August 2011, some outsiders were skeptical that the company could survive, much less grow to occupy the additional nearby land Facebook owned.

How could a company make money on a service it gave away, a service based on, of all things, relationships -- on networks of friends?

Now, a mere four years later, Facebook is the largest landowner in Menlo Park's M-2 industrial area, the area the city is now calling the Bayfront. Soon, the number of employees that work in Facebook's Menlo Park offices may outnumber the residents of Belle Haven, the residential area next door to Facebook. Facebook says about 5,500 of its 11,000 world-wide employees work in Menlo Park, and city statistics from May 2015 show Belle Haven has 5,647 residents.

Facebook's growth in Menlo Park has been rapid. By January 2012, the company had moved all of its employees from its former Palo Alto offices to Menlo Park. The Frank Gehry-designed MPK-20 building, which has room to eventually hold 3,000 workers, was opened in March of this year, across the Bayfront Expressway from the former Sun campus. (MPK-20 stands for the 20th Menlo Park building.)

More growth to come

The growth spurt is far from over. In July, Facebook presented plans to eventually add two more office buildings, each larger than MPK-20, plus possibly a hotel, to the land it owns between Bayfront Expressway and Chilco Street. The remodeling of an 180,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution building on the former TE Connectivity site into an office building with a cafe is already underway and scheduled for completion mid-2016.

Facebook also owns the 56-acre Menlo Science and Technology Park, east of Willow Road near Bayfront Expressway. Facebook is working with the city to designate the property for new housing and retail on the site, along with more offices. The city's current version of the plan for the area also shows the Facebook property as the possible home of a supermarket, which has been long requested by Belle Haven residents.

Paying attention to neighbors

As Facebook grows, it is paying attention to its neighbors. The campus expansion plans presented to the city in July show a three- to four-acre public green space between the two new buildings, connecting to a public pedestrian bridge that would cross over Bayfront Expressway, giving easy access from the Belle Haven neighborhood, and the Facebook campus, to the Bay Trail.

The green space could be used for events such as farmers' markets, outdoor movies and more, Facebook says.

Facebook also is working on improving the Dumbarton rail right-of-way, a 100-foot-wide strip of land along the sparsely used tracks that divide Belle Haven from the M-2 industrial area.

"It's in the best possible location" to promote biking, dog walking or hiking, "or if you wanted to have a victory garden," says John Tenanes, who heads Facebook's worldwide real estate activities. "We've been working with Caltrain and Samtrans, and we think it's possible."

He compared the area to Manhattan's High Line Park, built on a no-longer-used elevated railway. "This is our version -- the Low Line," he says. A major difference is that only the space beside the Dumbarton tracks would be used and the rail could still accommodate trains.

The preliminary plans also show a safer, more walkable Chilco Street.

Facebook has already contributed in other ways to the neighborhood it borders. A public tunnel under Bayfront Expressway connects the north and south sides of Facebook's campus, and bikers and walkers to the Bay Trail. Facebook pays the salary of a full-time police officer for the neighborhood's new Hamilton Avenue substation, helps support a community garden in Belle Haven, recently started a public Sunday farmers' market and has many employees volunteering in local schools and other activities.

Here for the long haul

Mr. Tenanes says Facebook is working hard to be a good neighbor partially because the company believes it will be in Menlo Park for a long, long time. "If you think about Facebook, we're not a developer," he said in a recent interview in the MPK-20 building. "We're really here for the long term, and it is an investment. We're a neighbor. We're about integrating into the community."

Someday, in fact, many Facebook employees may live in the neighborhood as well as work there. In the zoning being considered as part of the revisions to Menlo Park's general plan, thousands of housing units could be added to Facebook's original Menlo Park site (the former Sun Microsystems property) as well as on Facebook's Willow Road property.

New housing is also being built near Facebook. Greenheart Land Company has a 195-unit building under construction, and a few miles away, St. Anton's is building 394 units off Haven Avenue near Marsh Road. Facebook is subsidizing 15 of the St. Anton's units so they will be affordable to low-income tenants, and the company is working on making it easy to bike between Facebook and the new complex.

Listening to its neighbors is not new, Facebook says. "When we first moved here, we made friends with the local city officials, the city manager, the city council; but also the local community," Mr. Tenanes says. "I think we've done really well in terms of connecting with them."

The new development

The new buildings Facebook has proposed for the former TE Connectivity property will also be designed by Gehry Partners.

Like MPK-20, parking will be tucked under the buildings to hide cars from view and allow more landscaping and less paving. Bridges would join the buildings together.

The model made to help design the new development includes Belle Haven as well as Facebook buildings. "We're starting to think about the neighbors, and that's why the neighborhood is included in the model," Mr. Tenanes says. "We're thinking beyond just this building ... how do we fit into the neighborhood at the right scale."

The proposed MPK-21 and MPK-22 buildings will "address some of the scale and geometry of the community," he says. "There's more movement, the roofs are a lower scale, they're sloped" and the building's exterior has more articulation, or distinct changes in form, he says. Landscaping will help the building blend in, especially from a distance.

Improving the view from the neighborhood won't be difficult. Today the TE Connectivity site as seen from Belle Haven is a view of loading docks, garbage dumpsters and towering industrial tanks screened only by chain link fences and scraggly vegetation.

Facebook plans to demolish the TE Connectivity buildings, starting with those closest to the MPK-20 building. The first building, MPK-21, is projected to be 513,000 square feet and include an event space for up to 2,000 people. The next building, MPK-22, would be 450,000 square feet of offices, with a possible hotel of up to 200 rooms and 175,000 square feet also on the plan.

The buildings could be up to 75 feet tall, with the main access from a new signal on Bayfront Expressway, near the proposed pedestrian bridge. The total size of the three buildings, if all are built, would be 1.138 million square feet, which is less than allowed under current zoning.

The buildings would have a total of 4,055 parking spaces, including 275 for a hotel; which Facebook says is 2,365 more parking spaces than currently on the property.

The 58-acre site now has 10 buildings and 1.02 million gross square feet of industrial, warehouse, office and research and development uses.

The construction of the buildings is still many public meetings and approvals away, however.

Lots of city approvals needed

Menlo Park officials must agree to rezone the site so buildings can exceed the current M-2 zoning height, change the text of the zoning ordinance to allow a hotel, negotiate a development agreement, approve removing some of the site's 250 heritage trees, negotiate a below-market-rate housing agreement, adjust the lot lines, complete and approve an environmental review, and analyze the fiscal impact of the development on the city and other agencies.

That means, the city says, multiple public hearings with the Planning Commission and City Council, a public outreach meeting, and reviews by the housing, environmental quality, bicycle and transportation commissions.

Menlo Park Associate Planner Kyle Perata says the City Council will probably consider giving final approval to the project next summer and only after that could Facebook get its building permits and start construction.

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