Building Connectivity in Suburbia

LinkedIn office building in Sunnyvale, Calif. --insulated from the street by a parking lot and a landscaping berm.
A LinkedIn office building in Sunnyvale, Calif. — insulated from the street by a parking lot and landscaping berm — hews to traditional “sprawl” design. The rest of the campus does better but still misses an opportunity to connect with the surrounding community.

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60’s-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It’s making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

by James A. Bacon

LinkedIn Corp. has built a wildly successful business model around connecting business people through cyberspace. Ironically, the fast-growing Silicon Valley corporation gives short shrift to connecting people in the physical world. Its new corporate campus in Sunnyvale, Calif., located in an emerging “innovation district,” misses an opportunity to foster creativity by encouraging employees to interact with others outside the organization.

In some ways, the LinkedIn campus represents an improvement on the traditional sprawling settlement pattern of Silicon Valley. The facility is higher density than neighboring office and industrial buildings in Peery Park, one of the valley’s oldest office parks. The company conserves acreage by replacing open parking lots with a five-level deck. The buildings have interesting architectural features and the landscaping is attractive.

Erik Calloway

But the LinkedIn complex falls short of what it could have been, Erik Calloway told me when I visited the San Francisco Bay area this spring. An urban designer with Freedman Tung & Sasaki, the firm engaged to help the City of Sunnyvale develop Peery Park as an innovation district, Calloway had ridden his motorcycle from San Francisco to show me how urban design can stimulate — or dampen — economic innovation. If only LinkedIn had tweaked the layout, he says, it could have opened the campus to the outside world, contributing to the vitality of the district and perhaps to its own enterprise. Says Calloway: “They weren’t focused on connections to the district.”

For much of American history, major corporations located major facilities in downtown business districts in order to avail themselves of the wealth of professional services, particularly bankers and lawyers, located nearby. Then in the post-World War II era, many corporations fled decaying cities to the suburbs, setting up self-contained campuses or office parks that were seen as serene, tranquil, far from the madding crowd. Now the movement is reversing, as corporations seek to gain competitive advantage by building innovation ecosystems in which they engage in intense interaction with collaborators outside the organization.

Many cities are evolving “innovation districts,” a concept popularized earlier this year by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner with the Brookings Institution. Innovation districts, they write in “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” are where “leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.” Typically, these areas are physically compact, walkable, bikeable and transit-accessible, and sport a rich variety of amenities from restaurants to apartments.

Innovation districts are found mainly in cities built in the pre-automobile era because those districts possess the attributes — research universities, walkable streets, higher densities, mixed uses and an inventory of affordable older buildings — required to stimulate enterprise formation. Sunnyvale is notable for its effort to carve an innovation district out of mid-20th century, autocentric suburbia. If the Sunnyvale experiment is successful, it could provide a new economic-development template for suburbia.

As someone who combines the academic viewpoint of Katz and Wagner with a hands-on practice of an urban planner actually working to create and implement an innovation district, Calloway provides a valuable perspective.

Cities are changing from the scattered, low-density pattern derisively known as “suburban sprawl” to more compact forms, he says. Unlike some critics he doesn’t castigate sprawl as a disaster. Citing research he has done for an upcoming book on the subject, he asserts that sprawl arose after World War II in response to social and economic forces such as mass production, the spread of automobile ownership and construction of freeways. Developing cheap land by applying assembly-line principles to urban planning provided affordable middle-class housing to millions of Americans. “It worked well at the time. It provided a lot of wealth and prosperity.”

Silicon Valley was developed along that model: low-density suburbs served by streets designed with automobility foremost in mind. But sprawl created problems, Calloway says. In Silicon Valley traffic congestion and pricey housing were accentuated by sharp growth limits and surging demand created by the extraordinary success of the region’s high-tech industry. Unlike nearby San Francisco, which evolved to greater densities over the decades, the Valley has not. With some of the highest real estate prices in the world, it has largely displaced the poor and working class.

On a more global level, the nature of work has changed as the economy has evolved from a hierarchical, assembly-line model to a digital economy. Selling more stuff cheaper is no longer the primary path to prosperity, Calloway argues. Access to raw materials, transportation and abundant labor are secondary considerations. Now the mantra is innovation. Take shoes, for example, a product that humans have been fabricating for centuries. The challenge for a company like Nike isn’t to keep costs down so it can sell shoes cheaper than anyone else — although cost is a consideration — it’s applying technology to create shoes that have features that shoes never had before, such as, perhaps, the ability of buyers to customize their shoes online.

The question, then, is how to organize companies and their employees to maximize creativity and innovation.

Apple, reputed as one of the most innovative companies in the world, is building a huge new campus in a striking, futuristic design inspired by Steve Jobs.  The 2.8 million-square-foot facility, snarkily described by detractors as the “mother ship,” will create a world of its own, sublimely isolated from the rest of the valley. Calloway doesn’t say that’s wrong — Apple knows its business better than he does. Much R&D and innovation in Silicon Valley is outsourced to venture-funded start-ups. The giants seed the landscape with experiments, see which ones succeed, and acquire them. Standing at the center of innovation ecosystems, the tech giants are not focused on innovating internally but in monetizing innovation.

But Calloway thinks the big guys miss something when they seal themselves off. Innovation comes, he says, from putting ideas together to create something new. “You need a lot of people, and you need places where they can share ideas,” he says.  “You need ways for people to run into each other talk to each other. If you only have people from the same company, you won’t get the same cross-fertilization.”

Many talented people, especially young ones, are reluctant to work in a mothership environment. They don’t like long commutes driving alone in cars. They don’t want to work in an office where the streets are dead. As a 32-year-old professional, Calloway speaks with some authority on this subject. “Work is more than just a way to make money. It’s a way of living. You want to work in a place where you want to be. People want options. They don’t want to eat the same thing at the same cafeteria every day. … People want variety in their lives.” That’s why so many entrepreneurial start-ups have migrated from Silicon Valley to San Francisco.

While Calloway supports the goals of the “smart growth” movement, he sees the challenge as more complex than building dense clusters of walkable development around transit. The Smart Growth model is great when you have transit. But cities can’t afford to build transit everywhere. “You have to work with the cities you have.”

What cities do need to do is evolve over time. The challenge is to figure out how and where to add density without triggering a negative response from neighbors who might feel threatened by change. One good place to do that is in old, low-density industrial parks where there’s hardly anyone living now, hence nobody to protest.

Sunnyvale’s Peery Park is just such a place. The 407-acre industrial park was built mostly in the 1960s and 1970s; one- and two-story buildings with large footprints dedicating lots of land to surface parking lots. Unlike many industrial parks that have reached the half-century mark, Peery Park wears its age well. Mature trees provide lots of shade. The lawns and landscaping are well tended. The Class B buildings have been kept up. But the park, though fully occupied, is outdated for functioning in a knowledge economy. While there is lots of green space, there is no public space that invites people to gather. There are no sidewalks, no bus stops. There is no mixed use, nowhere to walk to lunch. The wide streets are mostly empty. There is very little activity outdoors. Businesses might be humming away inside but there is little visible interaction between businesses.

In 2013, the City of Sunnyvale issued an RFP to hire a consultant to help develop a “specific plan” for the industrial park. In California, specific plans are documents that integrate development policies, land use regulations, design standards, capital investment programs and financing programs. A key goal was to bolster the tax base by upgrading the city’s inventory of commercial and industrial real estate. Freedman Tung & Sasaki won the contract.

While that plan is still being developed Calloway provides some clues of what to expect. He foresees re-development at higher densities in select locations, with one or two concentrations of activity. He anticipates more mixed-use buildings. He expects sidewalks and streetscape improvements to make the district more walkable.

Sadly, the specific plan wasn’t in place when LinkedIn embarked upon its expansion. While the corporate campus is a definite improvement over what had been there, says Calloway, it looks in upon itself. It doesn’t contribute as much as it should to the hoped-for innovation district.

On the positive side, LinkedIn erected a five-level parking deck — — a height that is almost unprecedented for Silicon Valley — which has space for more than 1,000 cars. The parking deck and office buildings will be arrayed around an attractive plaza. But the building entrances will face the plaza — not the streets. People will drive to the campus, park in the deck, and then walk through the plaza to get to their building. “They’re putting the activity in the center of the block, literally walled off from the street,” Calloway says. Meanwhile, the acquisition of a spec building next door leaves plenty surface parking that creates a psychological barrier between the offices and the streets at that end of the campus.

Here's LinkedIn's interface with the street.  How inviting. Can you see anything here resembling an entrance?
Here’s the street interface for a spec building next door to its main Sunnyvale campus. How inviting. Can you spot anything here resembling an entrance?

Calloway calls it a “low connectivity” design. He would have liked to see mixed use, particularly on the ground floors, where restaurants, shops and smaller tenants could reside. He would have liked to see building orientation outward, with main entrances facing the street, not inward to the plaza. He would have liked to see better connectivity with the perimeter streets, not just driveways. “It would have taken some tweaking to contribute to the activity of the district,” he says. “It could have contributed more.”

LinkedIn did not respond to an interview request.

Silicon Valley is still on a roll, spitting out new companies by the hundreds. There should be no lack of demand for the new-and-improved Peery Park. Indeed, if there is surging demand for innovation districts, as Calloway, Katz, Wagner and others theorize, companies intent upon building innovation ecosystems should flock there. Outside of the area around Stanford University, there is little competition in Silicon Valley.

The Peery Park was a novel concept when it opened for business in the 1960s. The concept was copied widely. The industrial park’s evolution into a suburban innovation district could be a trend setter, too. In the Katz-Wagner analysis, traditional downtowns are far more likely to possess the requisite ingredients to create an innovation district than suburban office parks. But if Peery Park succeeds in reinventing itself, it could create a new model for suburban revitalization across America.

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3 responses to “Building Connectivity in Suburbia”

  1. Calloway is right.

  2. berngrush Avatar

    Valuable commentary, Jim. Agree Calloway is right.

  3. […] How Innovation Districts Inch Toward Suburban Connectivity (Bacon’s Rebellion) […]

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