Tech giants step up to connect with communities

LOS ANGELES • Facebook has a chance to be "liked" for what it does as a major resident of a real town. Which is why Mr John Tenanes, its vice-president for real estate, is showing off its plans for expansion. It will have offices for thousands of programmers.

But that is not what he is excited about. He leans over a scale model of the 24ha Willow Village site. "There will be housing there. There will be a retail street along here... That round building in the corner? Maybe a cultural centre," he said.

In just a few years, Facebook built a virtual community that linked more than two billion people. Now, it is designing a real community.

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighbourhood 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 to offer 225 at below-market rates, with the full-price units most likely for its staff.

It is not the only tech giant that wants to click with neighbours.

Ms Cecilia Taylor of Belle Haven Action, a community advocacy group, says: "Corporations are paying for things that the city or county and state used to pay for. They have a lot of money... And a lot more power."

Only seven years ago, Silicon Valley had a very different attitude about building houses for workers, much less the community.

Mr Steve Jobs made his case before the Cupertino City Council for a new Apple headquarters.

Council member Kris Wang asked: How could the 60,000 Cupertino residents benefit?

"We'd like to continue to stay here and pay taxes," he said.

Ms Wang, an ex-Cupertino mayor, persisted. "Do we get free Wi-Fi?"

Mr Jobs said: "I always had this view that we pay taxes and the city should do those things. If we can get out of paying taxes, I'd be glad to put up a Wi-Fi network."

Since that June 2011 meeting, Apple has built a US$5-billion (S$6.6-billion) campus in Cupertino. But for all its splendour, it is not readily accessible by mass transit. That woe was compounded by its apparent lack of interest in where its staff would live.

Decisions like these are no longer acceptable. If Silicon Valley continues choking on its traffic, the companies will find hiring impossible. So they are being forced to grapple with the most intractable physical issues.

"I don't think Google, for instance, thought they were going to have to get into the transportation business," said editorial director Allison Arieff of San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, a research group. "But they now have a giant swath of the company devoted to getting people around. Housing seems the next step."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'Tech giants step up to connect with communities'. Print Edition | Subscribe