‘Facebook town’ plan echoes company settlements of the past

Facebook plans to create its very own 630,000sq ft town in Menlo Park, California

Reporting from the heart of Cannapolis, North Carolina in 1933, a Fortune magazine journalist noted the town was "like a medieval city, standing aloof and self-contained… suspicious of strangers and loyal to its feudal lords".

Founded by JW Cannon – chairman of the Cannon Mills Corporation – to house the employees of his textile empire, the town has since become known as Kannapolis and that is not the only thing that has changed.

No longer solely reliant on textiles to provide jobs, it's a hub of technology development, hosting the $1.5 billion (€1.1 billion) North Carolina Research Campus.

Now, on the other side of the USA, the world's largest technology hub in Silicon Valley, California is set to become home to a modern-day version of a company-created community within two years.


Welcome to Facebook town. Well actually, it's called Anton Menlo, though some have dubbed it Facebookville and Zuckland among other titles. The $120 million "apartment community" is being built by the social networking giant alongside developers, St Anton Partners.

Work begins this month, and while other Silicon Valley giants have used various methods to encourage staff to spend as long as they can at work – from Google’s “nap pods” to getting a haircut in the Dropbox office – the Facebook town development represents a large leap forward for such web giants.

"In terms of design and integration of amenities, living space and services," said Seán O'Leary, executive director of the Irish Planning Institute. Anton Menlo is a "along the normal principles" of a "standard" housing development.

The 394-unit, 630,000 square feet project will be within a five-minute walk of Facebook's existing Menlo Park headquarters and its new West Campus.

In all there will be 35 studio apartments, 208 one-bedroom residences, 139 two-bedroom units and 12 three-bed homes. To keep residents happy there will also be convenience stores, cafés, a sports bar, concierge services, barbecue pits, a “rooftop entertainment” deck, “resort-inspired pool, spa and cabana area”, pet spa with “doggy day care facilities” as well as a bicycle repair shop.

O’Leary also adds though that as company towns of the past were built on “frontier, green field” sites “seeing how this one is integrated into an existing area” will be “very interesting”.

“In the past these [towns] were built around, rivers, waterfalls… now you’re trying to follow where the people are, where the entrepreneurial, IT centres are.

“That’s interesting in itself,” said O’Leary.

Prof James Wickham, who is head of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy at Trinity College noted that previous company towns were often, an attempt to "stop employees going off to somebody else and also if you like to ensure their ideological commitment".

Company towns
The creation of such developments have, he added, almost completely stopped over the past 100 years in the Western world. Hardy Green, author of The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy, which looked into the history of towns like Kannapolis and Hershey, Pennsylvania, warned earlier in the year that "the history of US company towns shows that Facebook is up against an old problem" with Anton Menlo. That issue being sustainability.

One obvious speed-bump towards this goal being the 6ft wall which will apparently surround most of the development. It’s a feature which O’Leary says “would be pretty contrary to social sustainability” and possibly “promotes segregation”.

In addition Prof Wickham said the prominence of one bedroom units hints at a “transient” workforce moving in and out of the development as needed, something which again could have a knock-on effect in creating a thriving, long-lasting community.

Whatever the concerns, (a Tweet from US political satire staple, The Daily Show wondered if the plan would echo the company's online activities by including "frequent, unannounced redesigns to annoy residents"), the development seems like something the area has been crying out for.

Representing the biggest residential property project in the Menlo Park area (which has a population of around 33,000) for 20 years, finding digs close to work has been an issue for Facebook employees for some time.

Even 40 minutes down the road in San Francisco it was reported this July that real estate prices for homes had skyrocketed by almost 25 per cent compared to the same period last year.

However, once Facebook town is up and running it won’t be a panacea for all company employees stuck in property purgatory either, with the Anton Menlo development having enough space to house only 10 per cent of the local Facebook workforce.

Once it is built though, the main worry of O’Leary’s is that it lasts.

"Go back to [Birmingham village] Bourneville, or Disney who would have built towns or villages for employees, and they're still pretty thriving sustainable locations. You would have to ask whether the Facebook town is a long-term prospect or just meeting a short-term need."