Almanac

Cover Story - March 9, 2011

Dreaming the future

To boldly go where Menlo Park has never gone before

by Sandy Brundage

"This is just dream world stuff," Matt Henry said as he sat watching the cafeteria at Facebook's new home hum with more activity than the room had seen in the months since Oracle began leaving the 10 Network Circle campus in Menlo Park.

But 174 architects, students, designers, and dreamers huddled around tables, drawing with colored pencils and iPads, turning figments of the imagination into visions of what the Belle Haven and Willow business area could become. By the end of the 12-hour design "charrette" on March 5, those visions started to seem like real possibilities.

Mr. Henry, representing the Belle Haven Neighborhood Association, carried his community's dreams to the charrette. He presented a list of nine wishes, complete with color depictions and photographs, to the architects. Some wishes were small, such as creating a shaded area for seniors by covering the patio at the Onetta Harris Community Center.

Other wishes were larger. Take Chilco Street. If any Menlo Park street looks like a back-alley wasteland, it's Chilco. In the minds of the neighborhood association, it becomes a boulevard lined by trees.

Then there were big wishes, like a library adjacent to the Belle Haven community school, open the same hours as the main city library. The current school library is only open during school hours, Mr. Henry said. With a nod at a flier advertising the charrette, he observed, "This is a joke if education doesn't get uplifted in our community."

Along those lines, he proposed a Facebook visitors' center, open on weekends, to give the community's children a place to learn more about technology.

Mingling community with business dominated the planning during Saturday's event, as shown in the presentations at the day's end. Mayor Rich Cline, Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith, and Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson watched with dozens of residents as each design team offered 8-foot-by-4-foot posters displaying visions shaped from community input throughout the day.

Going green

The green team focused on the intersection of Willow Road and Bayfront Expressway. "It's a pretty unfriendly face to present to the world," said team leader Susan Eschweiler. The group suggested winding bicycle and pedestrian paths through gardens of native plants, with neighborhood retail — "instead of drive-by retail" — as a destination point near the Facebook campus.

In sketches, rooftop gardens planted on podiums with parking underneath doubled as meeting areas as well as vegetable plots and solar power generators for Facebook's benefit; the corporation hopes to achieve a LEED environmental rating on new construction.

The hub

Next up, the yellow team, which concentrated on Belle Haven, thanked the 30-plus neighborhood residents who stopped by to contribute ideas. The designers spoke of turning Belle Haven into a place people want to go to, not just drive through, by creating a community hub at the intersection of Hamilton Avenue and Willow Road. They described the hub, which would encourage visitors to linger, as a physical manifestation of Facebook's virtual social networking.

Also tasked with designing single-family homes, the team encountered one challenge the city might have to solve. Zoning ordinances limit house lot options; the architects created layouts for three- and four-bedroom homes, including one dubbed "the Facebook" model, that included in-law units as sources of rental income or additional housing. However, the average lot size in Belle Haven is too small for secondary units, according to the ordinances.

A park with uses

The wetlands bordering the perimeter of the Facebook campus were the purview of the blue team, and for the most part, the architects left the natural habitat untouched.

Describing the campus as "an island in a sea of parking," the team proposed eliminating several parking areas to create three nodes that would give Facebook some privacy while also allowing the community to enjoy the coastline through viewing platforms and trails screened by plants. "Like a park with uses," an architect said of one node, pointing out where photovoltaic cells could be added to power laptops for employees working outdoors. The remaining nodes served as recreational areas complete with Segway-friendly courts.

Another architect tackled the exit from the Dumbarton Bridge, sketching a gateway draped with a transparent solar canopy containing cells to convert sunlight to electricity, providing power for street lights and Facebook. The solar canopy symbolized a key feature of all the presentations: Dreams grounded in reality. San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences uses the same type of canopy.

Thinking global

Finally, the red team reached for international inspiration, showing flowing pedestrian pathways that arced over nearby streets and undulated through thick stands of trees that screened traffic from view, like those already built in Singapore and Australia.

"Think about how you can share this space with the most people. It's the same idea behind Facebook; how can you share your stuff with the most friends?" said architect David Schnee. "This is not a pie-in-the-sky proposition."

Visions of the future

After the presentations, Facebook's director of real estate, John Tenanes, relayed one student's observation about the charrette that highlighted the intermingling of virtual and physical worlds. "She said, 'I'm on Facebook, I'm at Facebook, and I'm working on a project for Facebook," he told the crowd.

It'll be a while before the shared dreams become reality; aspects of a similar event held in 2005 for Menlo Park's downtown are only now appearing in the proposed specific plan. But the City Council will see a formal presentation of the charrette results on Tuesday, May 3, and then contemplate what comes next.

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