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Facebookville: A 21st Century Company Town?

Facebook lost $50 billion in value in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but don’t shed a tear for the world’s most popular social network. The site still boasts over a billion daily users, offices all over the globe and over 25,000 employees.
facebookville
Courtesy of Facebook

Assuming that the company weathers this storm, that last number is set to grow: Facebook’s vice president for real estate, John Tenanes, tells The Mercury News that the social media giant expects to employ 35,000 workers at its Menlo Park headquarters in the next few years.

That’s a big deal for Menlo Park, which currently has about 35,000 residents total. The obvious concerns are: how will current services and infrastructure stretch to accommodate these new workers? And given the already sky-high cost and scarcity of housing in the Bay Area, where will they live?

To address these issues, Facebook proposes to build a new city: Willow Village.

Per The New York Times:

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

Willow Village will include bike trails, parks, even retail stores — although Tenanes is careful to point out that these stores wouldn’t be run by Facebook.

“The retail stores will not be managed by Facebook. But we have the mechanism, we are the property owner,” he tells The Times. “It is a bit new.”

A Different Kind of Company Town

“The company store,” of course, has different connotations that Facebook would hope to associate with its project. Company towns were a common feature in 19th and early 20th century America, where employers created entire communities to house — and often control — their workers.

PBS.org explains:

The remoteness and lack of transportation prevented workers from leaving for other jobs or to buy from other, independent merchants. In some cases, companies paid employees with a scrip that was only good at company stores. Without external competition, housing costs and groceries in company towns could become exorbitant, and the workers built up large debts that they were required to pay off before leaving.

The historical associations go a long way toward explaining why Facebook, in The Times’ words, “has not warmed” to nicknames like Facebookville or Zucktown. And to be clear, even the project’s sternest critics aren’t insinuating that Mark Zuckerberg and company are hoping to create a 19th century mill-town with its own police force.

If big tech employers like Facebook continue to grow at their current pace, planned communities (or at least, subsidized housing) may become a popular solution to the housing problems they inadvertently create. A two-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area is now pricier than it is in New York — and most residents don’t have a Facebook engineer’s six-figure salary to offset the cost of living.

Willow Village might not be entirely motivated by altruism, but if Facebook can offset the housing crisis, some community leaders will accept the bargain.

“Whether or not they’re doing it just to get approvals, the bottom line is they are doing it,” said Candace Gonzalez, president and CEO of Palo Alto Housing, speaking with Wired in 2016. “And we’ll take the housing.”

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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