America is a nation of office parks. Low-rise compounds surrounded by seas of employee parking are fixtures of the suburban and exurban landscape. Usually located miles from the nearest downtown and accessible only by car, this sprawl-intensive development pattern usually comes down to expedience: That’s where space is available and where the rent is cheapest.
In Silicon Valley, though, the preference for office parks is more deeply imprinted. During the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, as the region’s tech industry grew, executives found they could quickly snap up standard-issue office buildings as business ramped up, and offload them when things got rocky. The large floor plates of these buildings allowed for easy collaboration, seen as a big advantage in the tech world. Self-contained campuses fulfilled the need for security in an industry where IP is all-important.
Over time, these real-estate practices were baked into a culture that emphasizes “churn,” a dynamic of rapid growth and decline. The result: a fragmented, auto-oriented landscape that puts a heavy burden on the environment and society.
It doesn’t have to be this way, according to a new report from SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. In “Rethinking the Corporate Campus,” the nonprofit presents a year’s worth of research into knowledge-economy workplaces in the Bay Area. SPUR has a vision of what the region can become—“a constellation of lively, well-connected urban centers ... each bustling with people sharing ideas and energy.”
As any visitor to the Valley’s procession of interchangeably beige facilities can attest, that polycentric, sustainable realm is still a long way off. Despite policies to promote urban development and a few well-publicized examples of tech companies (such as AirBnB) rehabbing historic buildings in San Francisco, the suburbanization of work in the Bay Area continues apace. “[T]he post-recession boom is reinforcing the dominant suburban pattern where most jobs are in auto-dependent places away from rail,” write report authors Allison Arieff, Benjamin Grant, Sarah Jo Szambelan, and Jennifer Warburg. Most tech workers drive to their coding cubes, and only 28 percent of new office development is within a half-mile of regional transit.
SPUR’s report describes the negative consequences of such a diffuse employment geography. It exacerbates pollution and climate emissions, traps commuters in their cars for longer (leading to health problems and squandered productivity), and isolates many workers—especially low-income ones—from well-paying jobs. It also, as the authors note, forces businesses in the ‘burbs to compete with cities by laying on on-site perks, like gourmet meals and dry cleaning, that cities provide intrinsically.
A more sensible pattern is possible. Back in 2012, SPUR found that more than 40 percent of jobs in the region are transit-accessible if you count high-capacity local transit such as light rail and buses. In other words, urban job hubs are out there; they just haven’t reached their potential yet.
A graphic in the report comparing the job centers underscores this. (You can explore them in our story map, above.) Hyper-suburban Santa Clara has 0 transit stops and a Walk Score of 20 (ouch!), so it’s not surprising that 84 percent of employees drive to work alone. Meanwhile, downtown Redwood City has 11 transit stops and a Walk Score of 93—yet 76 percent of employees there drive alone, too. Redwood City is a place where the right policies can move the needle toward urbanism.
Box, the cloud-storage company, recently relocated there from its former headquarters in Palo Alto. “Redwood City, where Box is, is right on Caltrain. It’s a pretty vibrant small downtown,” says Arieff, SPUR’s editorial director and one of the report authors. “So Box doesn’t have to provide everything for its employees.”
Not every knowledge-sector employer can move to San Francisco, and some don’t want to, given the industry preference for large floor plates and even single-floor offices. But locating in the downtowns of Redwood City, Oakland, or San Jose can let a company split the difference between a Silicon Valley shed and a San Francisco high-rise. (Uber, for instance, purchased a former department store above a BART station in Oakland.) “There are plenty of opportunities for the middle way,” Arieff says. In the case of Box, Arieff says it was employees who lobbied to move to Redwood City, based on urbanist principles.
SPUR offers 21 different prescriptions for changing the region’s geography of work. They range from smart-growth linchpins like zoning reform, major transit investment, and complete streets to bolder measures, such as a commercial development fee pegged to estimated vehicle miles traveled (VMT). (Similar policies exist in San Joaquin County and in San Francisco’s new Transportation Demand Management ordinance.) The authors also suggest that new parking structures be designed for obsolescence: “Revise codes to require that new parking structures be designed for disassembly or conversion to other uses, with adequate floor-to-floor dimensions and level floors.”
With the region’s ongoing housing crisis and the news that some families earning six figures in San Francisco qualify for federal housing assistance, the status quo is clearly not working. “We really wanted to talk to a lot of the players and get them invested in the fact that they weren’t going to be able to recruit employees anymore [because of high housing costs and transit limitations],” Arieff says. “Not all of the issues have been solved, but we have seen enough examples where it is working, and we can say it’s possible, with the recognition that it’s super hard and a lot has to change.”
As cities like Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Boise attempt, with mixed success, to refashion themselves into tech hubs, Arieff hopes SPUR’s research will help them avoid some of the Bay Area’s problems. “I would love it if those cities could look at the report and do a little looking ahead. I think what has happened in the Bay Area is what happens when your transit investment doesn’t keep up with economic and population growth,” she says. “It’s my hope that other places can learn from this, and say, ‘If we want to be the next Silicon Valley, there are some things we have to do.’”