San Francisco Growing Tech Companies Present Design, Infrastructure Challenges

Bay Area, tech companies, San Francisco, Visa, Gensler, CoreNet, SPUR, SITELAB Urban Studio, JLL, John Rahaim, infrastructure, design, transportation


By Nancy Amdur

As more technology firms head into San Francisco, designers are working to accommodate their unique office needs, while city planners grapple with the infrastructure challenges of housing and transporting a fast-growing population.

“Tech workers do not want a corporate office. They want something dynamic and different that people will talk about,” said Allison Arieff, the editorial director for urban planning group SPUR, at last month’s local chapter meeting of corporate real estate trade association CoreNet Global, held in San Francisco.

“It’s a huge challenge to design for creativity,” she added.

When Visa Inc. looked for a new San Francisco office, the company sought space that would attract talent, foster creativity and appeal to clients, said Don Davis, the head of global real estate at Visa. “We wanted a new workplace that focuses on technology and innovation,” he said.

The company settled on a 113,000-square-foot space at One Market Plaza, which provides bay views and easy access to restaurants, shops, hotels and public transportation. Visa’s new space is designed with a casual feel and includes open offices, glass conference rooms, various individual and group workspaces and generous hallways to encourage interaction.

“The look and feel of the space is not terribly formal as you might have pictured at one time from a financial services company, but very informal, very collaborative,” said Dominique Price, a design director at global design firm Gensler’s San Francisco office, who worked on the project.

The new location, which opened in July, includes bench seating and accommodates about 650 employees. Workspace is denser, with workstations measuring 172 square feet, versus the 186-square-foot stations at the company’s area headquarters in Foster City.


“An urban setting provides a lot of variety, but we also need that in the workspace, because we’re finding that people work differently,” Price said. “So in the [office] is a variety of spaces for different teams, different tasks and even different moods.”

Offering assorted chair, desk and space options for employees “makes it more difficult for the person doing space planning and interiors,” Arieff said, but “strategies for adapting to this level of autonomy in work is integral to the future of real estate design.”

Aiming for a feeling of domesticity in the workplace is becoming more common, added Laura Crescimano, a principal at San Francisco design firm SITELAB Urban Studio. Companies are changing from traditional private offices to space with more community-driven interiors with features such as open kitchens, she said.

While technology firms make up only about 8 percent of San Francisco’s workforce, it often feels like 80 percent, Arieff said. This might be because the city leads all other United States markets in high-tech industry growth, according to a recent report by JLL, a real estate and investment management firm. The high-tech sector “was responsible for 90 percent of all office absorption in the city in the second quarter of this year,” said Julia Georgules, a director of research at JLL in San Francisco, in a statement.

“We’re in an interesting moment in our city,” said John Rahaim, the director of planning at the San Francisco Planning Department. Over the last four years, the city added 50,000 jobs and expects to add about 10,000 people per year over the next two or three years. Projections indicate that by 2040, San Francisco’s population will grow by 200,000 people, which will require 100,000 more housing units and about 200,000 jobs, he said.

Creating a more diverse transportation system will be essential to handle this growth, Rahaim said. “While today 60 percent of all trips in the city are by automobile, for us to accommodate growth that number has to drop to 50 percent,” he said.

The shortage and expense of housing in the city also must be addressed. “One of the greatest threats we have to the economic growth of the city is the cost of housing,” he said. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee called for adding 30,000 housing units to the city by 2020, and plans are on track to meet that goal, Rahaim said. The city added 2,500 units so far this year and another 10,000 units are expected to open by 2016. There are 49,000 units in the pipeline right now, of which 40,000 are fully entitled, he said. New development is slated for the area between Mission Bay and South of Market “where the next generation of growth” is occurring, Rahaim said.

As the city grows, city planers also aim to preserve the city’s character, he added. “How can we maintain the qualities of the city that we love?” he said. “There’s that incredible character in the city that is important for us to maintain, and can we do that with those pressures of growth, with the wealth that’s being created and the character and the change in the demographics of the city? That is our challenge.”

Photography courtesy of Gensler


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