Facebook submits revised plans for Willow Village | February 13, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - February 13, 2019

Facebook submits revised plans for Willow Village

by Kate Bradshaw

Facebook submitted updated plans on Feb. 8 for Willow Village, a proposal by the company to build 1.75 million square feet of office space, 1,500 housing units, up to 200,000 square feet of retail space, and a hotel with 200 to 250 rooms on a 60-acre parcel in Menlo Park now occupied by about 1 million square feet of office and warehouse buildings.

While the raw numbers of the project remain unchanged from Facebook's initial proposal in July 2017, the configuration of space on the site has been revised. Instead of having a number of small, publicly accessible mini-parks, Facebook proposes to build a 4-acre public park with recreation fields and a kids' play area at the southwest corner of the site, near Willow Road and Mid-Peninsula High School.

In addition, a proposed full-service grocery store and pharmacy have been moved closer to Belle Haven, a lower-income neighborhood located on the opposite side of Willow Road from the proposed development. The revised plans also include dedicated bike lanes and wide sidewalks for pedestrians, while promising "better integration" between the proposed office buildings and the retail and residential buildings. It would also have a "town square" gathering area.

John Tenanes, Facebook's vice president of global facilities and real estate, said in an interview that the Oakland-based Signature Development Group, led by president Michael Ghielmetti, will take the project through the approval process, public outreach and buildout.

While the buildings would be on the taller side for Menlo Park, they would be within the city's new guidelines of up to 85 feet, Ghielmetti said, "This isn't going to feel like San Francisco or downtown Oakland. It's a new neighborhood in Menlo Park."

Tenanes said that the reason Facebook went quiet on the project over the last year is because the company's team was searching for a developer for the site.

"In the concept, I think we had all the right ingredients," Tenanes said. "We've been in Menlo Park for eight years, and this project is an extension of what we talked about when we first got here."

Several elements in the proposal are based on requests that Facebook has heard from local residents since 2011, when the company and the city co-sponsored a "design charrette" to envision how to create a "sense of place" connecting Facebook with the Belle Haven neighborhood and other businesses near Willow Road and Bayfront Expressway.

During that process and those that followed, residents voiced interest in more housing, greener buildings, better bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and better connectivity to the Bay Trail, Tenanes said.

That preliminary meeting was followed by a yearslong process with hours of community meetings to update Menlo Park's general plan, which was approved in December 2016 and massively increased what developers are permitted to build on the city's eastern side, where Facebook is one of the largest landholders.

Since Willow Village was first proposed, Facebook has collected feedback from the community, including through the Planning Commission and City Council study sessions, as well as a series of town hall meetings on the proposal.

Transportation

The most obvious challenge Willow Village faces in the approval process is the traffic problem. The site is bordered on two sides by the gridlocked Willow Road and the defunct Dumbarton rail corridor, leaving little space for additional traffic. While Facebook has a strong track record of getting employees to commute by means other than solo driving, some argue that the transportation infrastructure isn't there to allow thousands of new residents and workers.

In response, Tenanes and Ghielmetti noted that the traffic is regional. "Facebook building here or not building here, candidly, does not change the regional traffic," Ghielmetti said.

Facebook is currently working with SamTrans and the Plenary Group on an environmental and fiscal analysis to evaluate a set of alternatives for a reinstated transbay rail line along the Dumbarton rail corridor.

However, Tenanes and Ghielmetti emphasized that the rail project would require collaboration from local, regional, state and federal agencies, and would have a longer entitlement process than the Willow Village development.

Facebook also plans to consider overpasses or underpasses at traffic choke points on Willow Road, they said, noting that environmental analysis and further studies need to be done before specific locations would be determined.

In addition, Tenanes explained, the development itself may enable more connectivity through the area than exists now.

"I think this plan is more porous than what exists today," he said.

Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller said in a written statement that he didn't want to give a "cheerleader quote" in response to the updated project. "There are many great benefits that a project like this can bring to a community, but there are also complex challenges."

"It's time to roll up our sleeves and dive in and determine what's real," he continued. "The outcome will be determined by the clarity of our vision, the conviction we maintain in our shared values, the availability and adequacy of supporting infrastructure investment, and importantly, our attention to detail. That being said, Facebook's expressed commitment to support regional evaluation of traffic congestion relief infrastructure projects in proximity to the project, such as Bayfront Expressway grade separations and Dumbarton Rail, are great first steps."

Jobs and housing

Willow Village as proposed would have 1,500 housing units, 225 of which would be designated for below-market-rate rent by the general public. Whether the other housing units would be intended for rent only by Facebook employees has not yet been determined, according to Tenanes.

It's also not yet known how many new employees would be expected to work in the 1.75 million square feet of office space planned.

The site currently has about 3,000 employees working in 1 million square feet of office space, Tenanes and Ghielmetti said.

Grocery store and retail space

One request that the city heard often from Belle Haven residents in the years of the ConnectMenlo general plan update process was for a full-service grocery store, a pharmacy and a bank branch.

Ghielmetti emphasized an interest in unique, local retail and community-serving spaces on the ground floor of the buildings of the development — restaurants, cafes, fitness areas, a pharmacy, and a grocery store. Other, more outside-of-the-box options, he added, would be things like makerspaces, co-working spaces or artisan workshops.

"The greater the variety of uses, the greater the variety of people and activity and energy that are in these areas," he said. In past experiences, he added, working with local businesses has helped to connect both existing and new residents to the area.

"We want this to work. The success of the community isn't the last dollar for an individual retail space," Ghielmetti said. "We will commit to work with the local neighbors so that there's a diversity of products and a diversity of businesses that are reflective of the community."

"I think you can count on Facebook as you have in the past to make sure this works," Tenanes said.

Ghielmetti said that Signature Development Group has a track record of bringing desired services — such as a grocery store or bank branch — into "neighborhoods largely passed over."

The developer is behind The Hive — a mixed-use development in Oakland with offices, retail and residential space — and other developments in Oakland, as well as the Fair Oaks Transit Village in Sunnyvale.

He added that, in the developer's experience, retail tenants moved in at a later stage in the development process after residents and some office workers had already occupied the site.

Next steps

Now that the updated plans have been submitted, Facebook plans to collect more feedback, launch the environmental review process, and initiate architectural designs.

"Our desire is for leadership to approve the project sometime next year (in 2020)," Ghielmetti said. From there, the project will be developed in phases, and construction would occur in the years to follow.

Facebook has created a website with additional information about the project at willowvillage.com.

What do you think of the revised plans? Email Almanac reporter Kate Bradshaw at kbradshaw@almanacnews.com.

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