Viewpoint - December 14, 2011

Editorial: The challenge of living with Facebook

Menlo Park city officials thought themselves pretty lucky when they convinced Facebook to move into the former Sun Microsystems complex at the Bayshore Expressway and Willow Road earlier this year.

When the deal was cut, everyone knew that Facebook would want to raise the number of employees at the complex past the limit of 3,600 for Sun. And, given the site's distance from Caltrain, it was also clear that the biggest challenge would be how to handle thousands of commuting employees every day without creating traffic gridlock on the roads that provide access to the company's headquarters at the end of Willow Road.

But now the potential impact of Facebook-bound commuters on local roads has been outlined in the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) for the campus development project. Traffic overload on some streets and intersections looks inevitable unless Facebook converts many of its employees to mass transit since the company is asking for approval to base 6,600 employees on the Sun campus and another 2,800 in buildings leased across the street.

In exchange, the company proposes to limit vehicle trips to the former Sun campus to 15,000 per day. That's not impossible — the company already claims that 40 percent of its workers use alternative transport. It's ambitious, but feasible given Facebook's determination to make its move to Menlo Park a success.

The downside: Without mitigations, Facebook traffic could clog Highway 84 (Bayfront Expressway), Marsh, Willow and Middlefield roads, not to mention traffic on the Bayshore Freeway, according to the DEIR. The city needs to look hard at whether Facebook can lower its impact on local transportation corridors to manageable proportions before approving the population increase.

Also, it remains to be seen if the report's conclusions that impacts on utilities, public services, and public schools are "less than significant" hold up under scrutiny. Certainly, Facebook employees are dispersed over a wide area and are not expected to cause a run-up in local real estate prices or contribute substantially to enrollment at elementary and high schools, but over time that could change. The company is already working with developers to design housing in Belle Haven to accommodate the influx of workers.

And finally, despite the impact report's conclusion that there's negligible impact on fire and police services, the fire district has prepared a lengthy memo disputing that conclusion. More personnel and equipment will be needed to serve the two campuses, the district says, and that costs money. The city and Facebook will need to respond to the district before a final EIR is approved.

On the upside, the day before the EIR was released, Facebook shared an economic impact study that shows its presence will bring a substantial boost in new jobs, retail spending and other economic activity, including a demand for 14,000 hotel room nights per year. If true, such hotel use would generate $1.95 million a year in Menlo Park and $3 million a year in the county, as well as $300,000 a year in room taxes for the city of Menlo Park.

The reports will take time to digest, and are available for viewing at Menlo Park City Hall until Jan. 23 and also online. The Planning Commission begins public hearings on the DEIR on Monday, Jan. 9. The commission will also consider Facebook's proposal to replace the 3,600-employee-cap at the former Sun campus with a limit on vehicle trips to 2,600 during any two-hour period and 15,000 per day.


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