MENLO PARK, Calif. — John Tenanes, Facebook’s vice president for real estate, is showing off the company’s plans for expansion. It will have offices for thousands of programmers to extend Facebook’s fearsome reach. But that is not what Mr. Tenanes is excited about.
He leans over a scale model of the 59-acre site, which is named Willow Village. “There will be housing there,” he points. “There will be a retail street along here, with a grocery store and a drugstore. That round building in the corner? Maybe a cultural center.”
In just a few years, Facebook built a virtual community that linked more than two billion people, an achievement with few precedents. Now the social network is building a real community, the kind you can walk around. It is a project with many precedents in American history, quite a few of them cautionary tales about what happens when a powerful corporation takes control of civic life.
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.
The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers.
Mr. Tenanes contemplates the audacity of building a city.
“It’s a good thing, right?” he says.
Depends how it goes. Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown.
The company has not warmed to these names. “I owe my soul to the company store,” Tennessee Ernie Ford sang. But Facebook’s ambitions are now confronting a more urgent problem: an escalating crisis over the company’s power to sway elections, its casual approach to data privacy and its susceptibility to Russian manipulation. If Facebook’s image is permanently sullied by the furor over Cambridge Analytica, the data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Zucktown will falter before it is finished.
The social media colossus is not the only Big Tech company in the complicated position of dressing up its expansion as a gift to its neighbors.
A few miles down the 101 highway, another new civic-corporate partnership is underway in the city of Mountain View. Google is promising to place the public “in the very heart of Google’s vibrant community.”
The search company plans a 600,000-square-foot office building with a roof that melts up into soft peaks, kind of like a meringue. It will have stores, cafes, gardens and even a space for theatrical performances, as well as a place for consumers to test-drive new Google technology.