The New Tech Campus: How Some Employers Slay Nasty Commutes

By Marisa Kendall
The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A quick commute may soon become a reality for some Bay Area workers. Some tech companies are shifting away from the iconic, stand-alone campuses that mark Silicon Valley and are often reached by lengthy car commutes.


As 90-minute “megacommutes” become increasingly common in the Bay Area, to say that Boramee Seo has an enviable trek to work is a mega-understatement.

While her peers are packed like sardines wearing business suits in crowded BART cars, or spend hours each day quietly fuming behind the wheel in stop-and-go traffic, Seo walks. Fifteen minutes after leaving her San Mateo apartment, Seo arrives at the new glass-walled headquarters of SurveyMonkey.

“I’m so much happier,” said the 39-year-old, nine months after ditching her hour-plus BART commute and moving into the apartment a few blocks from her office.

Seo’s quick commute soon may become a reality for more Bay Area workers, as some companies shift away from the iconic, stand-alone tech campuses that mark Silicon Valley and often are reached by lengthy car commutes.

Instead, employers like SurveyMonkey are setting up shop in spiffy new mixed-use developments that integrate office space, housing, retail and public transit, allowing employees to walk or take BART or Caltrain to work.

Experts say it’s an important change as booming tech companies are blamed for the Bay Area’s clogged streets and dwindling housing supply. But building these developments can be costly and complicated.

“Every company in this sector is struggling with what their responses to these challenges are,” said Benjamin Grant, urban design policy director for SPUR (the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association).

“The days of being able to cruise to the workplace in your car, and get out in your assigned parking space and go into your corner office, those days are just over.”

In a report this year, “Rethinking the corporate campus,” SPUR advocates replacing suburban office parks, lonely, nondescript buildings surrounded by a sea of parking lots, with the kinds of mixed-use developments that are taking shape in cities from San Leandro to Santa Clara and beyond. And tech companies are starting to agree, Grant says, as they face mounting backlash for bringing thousands of jobs to neighborhoods that lack the housing and transit infrastructure to accommodate those employees.

Some employers are addressing the problem with their own housing. Facebook is planning to build 1,500 homes on its expanded Willow Campus in Menlo Park, and earlier this month the Mountain View City Council approved a Google-backed plan to build nearly 10,000 homes in North Bayshore.

Others, such as Salesforce, Yelp and Twitter, make it easier for their employees to commute by setting up shop in downtown San Francisco, close to public transit. Google, Apple and other tech companies also use fleets of private shuttle buses to take cars off the road.

But space in urban centers is scarce, few companies have the money to build their own residential villages, and even expensive tech buses, in addition to drawing public ire as a symbol of the elite, get stuck in traffic.

A better option for many companies is the new breed of mixed office and residential campuses built by enterprising developers.

Data management company Veritas Technologies struck a deal last month to move its headquarters to Santa Clara Square, SurveyMonkey relocated to San Mateo’s Bay Meadows last December, software company OSIsoft moved into the San Leandro Tech Campus in November 2016, and Splunk signed a lease in Santana Row in San Jose in 2015. More mixed-use developments are in the works, including Brooklyn Basin in Oakland.

“Putting housing closer to employment is really the ultimate objective, where (fewer) people have to get into their car and commute,” said Sunny Tong, managing director of Westlake Urban, the developer behind the San Leandro Tech Campus.

Meanwhile, Bishop Ranch in San Ramon is retrofitting what might be considered the quintessential suburban office park, a sprawling 585-acre campus that was once home to pear orchards and is now host to dozens of companies.

The business park broke ground in May on a new “city center” at the park, a two-phase retail and housing development that will ultimately feature more than 70 retail tenants, 487 housing units and a 169-room hotel.

In Concord, city officials approved a reuse plan for the former Naval Weapons Station to build more than 12,000 housing units and 6.1 million square feet of commercial space on roughly 2,300 acres. And at the newly opened Warm Springs BART station in Fremont, developers plan to add up to 1,000 multifamily housing units and 5,000 square feet of commercial development just a stone’s throw from Tesla’s campus.

But building these developments can be tricky, experts say. Neighbors lob “NIMBY” objections over building height and density, it’s expensive to soundproof buildings near noisy transit hubs, suburban zoning rules can hamper development, and it’s often difficult to find enough space for a large project.

“There’s a lot of interest,” Grant said, “but the examples of existing projects that have actually been realized are quite few and far between.”

SurveyMonkey took a risk last December by moving out of its downtown Palo Alto home and into Bay Meadows, a mixed-use development built on a defunct racetrack in suburban San Mateo. When complete, the 83-acre complex abutting the Hillsdale Caltrain station will include five office buildings, 1,150 housing units, a coffee shop, a brewery, an ice cream shop and two restaurants.

On a recent afternoon, families pushed strollers and walked dogs down the development’s streets of modern-looking townhouses, passing parks, a play ground, a community garden, modern art sculptures and even a private high school. Ping-pong tables outside the office buildings are used by techies and children alike.

Ten percent of Bay Meadows’ housing is reserved for low-income families, and the developer donated an acre of land to build another 68 affordable units nearby. The rest of the homes aren’t cheap. Monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment starts in the low $3,000s, and single-family homes are priced at $2.2 million or more.

A similar development is taking shape across the Bay, next to the San Leandro BART station. The San Leandro Tech Campus houses software company OSIsoft’s headquarters, and there are plans to add 200 housing units, a second office building, and possibly a hotel.

When the residential apartments are finished, OSIsoft expects some employees will line up to move in, and that’s a big part of the reason they chose the location.

“It was absolutely a draw,” OSIsoft president Jenny Linton said. “We have tried to figure out how to provide housing on site for our employees for years.”

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