By Jacob Bourne
In April, SPUR released a report, Rethinking the Corporate Campus: The Next Bay Area Workplace, that analyzes performance of employment areas in the region and offers recommendations for best practices for both the public and private sectors. The recommendations seek to assuage some of the challenges created by existing development with the hope of achieving a higher level performance for workplaces so as to maintain economic viability and livability. With the Bay Area’s worsening traffic congestion and housing prices continuing to soar, the report points to a long history of shortsighted planning as a root cause that has positioned the region’s current employment geography in a manner that threatens future economic competitiveness.
“The Bay Area is the apex of global innovation but when you compare corporate campuses from the 1950s and today, there’s no difference,” said Allison Arieff, editorial director, SPUR. “We’re past the point of needing a new paradigm. Every city that’s trying to be the next Silicon Valley can look at the Bay Area and see what happens if you don’t plan for growth. There’s an intractable housing issue and intractable congestion. It’s far better to plan for population growth and build transit instead of playing catch up, which is what we’re doing now.”
Over the past year SPUR conducted research on employment trends and found for example, that between 2010 and 2015, the region gained 640,000 jobs mostly in the knowledge or tech sectors. The majority of these new jobs were not located near transit, with only 28-percent of new office development built within a half-mile of regional transit access. This has exacerbated dependence on cars for commutes, making private autos the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.
The history of the Bay Area’s design emerged in a context of a car-centric culture marked by lower congestion commutes with inexpensive, highly available land that no longer exists today. Despite this, the antiquated sprawling suburban corporate campus model still persists as the default option for companies. The inertia of this reality has proven difficult to change largely due to zoning restrictions and the high cost of building new development. However, the priorities behind employer decision making is also a prominent factor. The number one priority for companies deciding where campuses are located and what form they take is access to talent. According to Arieff, SPUR found that corporate campuses have a tendency to be located near to where the company’s CEO lives. Other top priorities are security, maximizing floor plate size and having an easy real estate exist strategy.
The mounting challenges and the fact that urban areas can accommodate more employees within the same amount of square footage all while using significantly less acreage than suburban areas, has moved some companies to make more sustainable choices. For example, Box relocated from Palo Alto to Redwood City right near Caltrain. Employees now have access to the amenities in Downtown Redwood City, which no longer have to be provided at the company’s headquarters.
“Samsung in San Jose is another bright spot with a tall building close to transit,” Arieff commented. “The ground floor of the building is open to the public and they moved security up to the second floor. They’re engaging with the neighborhood in a way that other companies are not.”
The SPUR team examined 11 different job centers in the region to compare performance in terms of walkability, transit access, car commute rates and number of jobs. Downtown Oakland ranked the highest in terms of walkability, Downtown San Francisco had the most transit stops and the lowest employee drive-alone rate. Downtown San Francisco also had the most jobs with 51-percent of them in the knowledge sectors.
Limited transit infrastructure is another barrier to achieving a more sustainable employment geography. The Warm Springs/South Fremont Community Plan is an example of a proactive urban planning initiative that grew out of plans to open the new Warm Springs BART Station. A framework for an “innovation district” was created with a high-density walkable area allowing a capacity for up to 20,000 jobs and 4,000 housing units.
“Our transportation network hasn’t grown with population growth,” explained Arieff. “Investing in the Caltrain corridor is key to economic growth for the region. If Caltrain ran four times per hour instead of once per hour, that would make a big difference. Think of all the people who work in New York City and who don’t live there; they can do that because there are transit options. Also building housing at all income levels is key to this.”
The SPUR report offered detailed recommendations on how to achieve the goal of increasing job accessibility, use land more efficiently and reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by drive-alone commuting. Notable recommendations include updating zoning code to allow for more growth near transit, provide a mix of housing, jobs and retail in historically single-use job centers, expand public transit, create transportation demand management programs, and enhance walkability, pedestrian access and bike access in the vicinity of employment centers.