The online social gaming company makes 650 Townsend home


| By Maria Shao |

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he reception desk sits inside a wooden cabin right out of the wild, wild West and is situated across from a Winnebago motor home. A walk-through, LED-lit tube ushers visitors into a dramatic six-story atrium illuminated by a giant skylight. A gleaming, glass-sided balcony rings each building floor. On the ground floor, a retro-looking canteen serves three free meals a day. Throughout the building, larger-than-life cutout figures and graphics of cartoon characters greet passersby: a dairy cow, a gun-slinging woman, a monkey, a farm girl. Sofa lounges, game rooms and barista bars are located on every floor. Few walls and no cubicles interrupt the open expanses, where desks are arranged in undulating rows. An underground concourse features a fitness center, yoga studio and massage area.

Welcome to the zany playground—aka headquarters—of Zynga Inc., the San Francisco developer of popular social-networking games such as “FarmVille,” “CityVille” and “Words with Friends.” Located in what Grubb & Ellis Co. calls the TriSoMa district of San Francisco—a triangular area south of Market Street and north of Potrero Hill and the Mission—the offices epitomize Zynga’s business ethos: creating a culture of play. The 400,000 square feet of interior space, designed by San Francisco’s NicholsBooth Architects, not only evoke the creativity of Zynga’s games, they are tailored to the wants and needs of a workforce full of engineers who are mostly male and often just out of college. The space features lots of common areas for geeks and artists to work together. Many built-in amenities pamper the talent.

Signaling its satisfaction with the building’s location and renovation, Zynga in March announced it would buy it for $228 million from San Francisco’s TMG Partners and Farallon Capital Management LLC. The two purchased the 670,000 square-foot location in late 2006 for $117 million and invested another $85 million in renovations. Zynga moved in last fall and now occupies two-thirds of the building, at 650 Townsend at 8th Street. “It is really the coolest technology space I can remember seeing in San Francisco. There is an incredible buzz and energy. It has the wow factor,” said Brian Fleming, a partner with San Francisco-based TMG.

Zynga’s headquarters have helped solidify the TriSoMa-—and Showplace Square area within it—as a trendy precinct for tech companies, home-design showrooms, restaurants and coffee bars. Other prominent tech tenants in the vicinity include Advent Software Inc., Adobe Systems, Sega Corp. and Eventbrite Inc., according to Grubb.

It took a major transformation to turn the more than 20-year-old facility into Zynga’s home. The seven-story building, designed by John Portman and constructed in 1990, has had an up-and-down history. It once housed a wholesale fashion mart, but when Zynga signed the lease in September 2010, the facility looked outdated and was a third occupied. Its narrow atrium was clogged by escalators from fashion-mart days—a space that Zynga founder and Chief Executive Mark Pincus once described as “‘Love Boat’ meets ‘High Anxiety,’” referring to the cruise-ship television series and the Mel Brooks psycho-comedy movie of the 1970s and 1980s.

[pullquote_right] “It is really the coolest technology space I can remember seeing in San Francisco. There is an incredible buzz and energy. It has the wow factor.” Brian Fleming, TMG Partners[/pullquote_right]Clearly, the five-year-old Zynga, which went public in December, now sees the digs as integral to its business and fundamental to attracting and retaining workers in the Bay Area’s increasingly competitive talent market. James Morgensen, vice president of workplace for Zynga, called the headquarters an “edgy space” that promotes social networks on the job. “If we can keep work exciting and changing, and the environment fresh, we can keep people,” he told a Colliers International Silicon Valley real estate gathering in February. He noted that the space was distinct from the nearly 60,000 square feet the company leased in Mountain View last year. While worker densities are consistent, “there are some cultural differences, and you have to be cognizant of that.”

“The space in Mountain View is nice, but it is more standard office space, and that is what people want,” he said.

In San Francisco, NicholsBooth and its client wanted to create a “gracious-looking South of Market space,” while preserving “the feeling of intensity in a start-up,” said Daniel Krevins, a senior designer at NicholsBooth. Fourteen escalators that choked the atrium and blocked out light were removed and a 250 square-foot skylight and staircase were added. Walls and columns were removed, leaving open space where desks and seating could be arranged and re-arranged. Today, the space has assumed a distinctly South-of-Market look with concrete floors and exposed beams and ducts.

The work areas exemplify the movement toward open floor plans with an abundance of communal space for today’s digitally connected and collaborative workforce. Benches have replaced cubicles, and worker density has skyrocketed. The headquarters are designed to accommodate up to 2,300 workers at about 170 square feet per employee. That is well less than the traditional norm of 250 square feet a worker but not as low as some other modern spaces, where less than 100 square feet per employee is not uncommon.

“There are no private offices anymore,” said Gary Nichols, president of NicholsBooth. “Folks started saying, ‘I don’t need an office. Put me in conference room.’ We’re switching the paradigm.” He attributes the change, which started less than two years ago, to Facebook Inc. founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who is known to work elbow-to-elbow with his engineers. Increasingly, Nichols said, “the furniture is the solution.” A $3,000 cubicle can now be replaced by a $1,000 setup.

At Zynga, employees sit at boomerang-shaped tables linked together in a honeycomb pattern. Three workers face each other at 120 degrees, allowing for easy communication but avoiding the formality and obtrusiveness of face-to-face or side-by-side seating. The arrangement creates undulating rows of tables rather than an imposing grid of cubicles. The challenge “was to figure out how to give them a sense of control and privacy while capitalizing on the interconnectivity and the cross-pollination of close working-quarters,” Krevins said. “You give people in that hive a sense that their honeycomb space is cool.”

NicholsBooth also developed a new ratio as part of its Zynga work: employees-to-conference rooms. At Zynga, the ratio is eight, resulting in more than 300 meeting rooms of varying sizes. The rooms have glass walls and are lined with whiteboards. Having so many meeting rooms accommodates “agile development,” a software practice in which engineers write code or do other tasks while checking frequently with their team for feedback and ideas. Team members gather in “scrums,” a term borrowed from rugby. At Zynga, a “scrum room” often has a trapezoid-shaped table with a large monitor attached to the narrow end. The setup allows everyone to see each other and the screen easily; it also can be moved from room to room.

Zynga tapped a small team of its own designers and project managers to provide “culture directive” to the architects. “They took our form and added the layer of culture on it. They were great ambassadors of the sense of play,” Krevins said. The online games company’s workers themselves designed many of the signs, exhibits and pop-up figures evoking characters and themes from its games. For the 8th Street entrance, Zynga’s staff also suggested the “Zyngabago” trailer, the “time travel” tube with flashing LED lights and the wild West playshack-cum-reception area inspired by its “FrontierVille” game.

Zynga’s interior design also reflects a culture of perks. Besides three free meals daily at the staff canteen, kitchenettes and snack islands on every floor offer sweet and savory fare. Barista bars brew Blue Bottle artisan coffee. Zynga’s “food culture” is so pronounced, Morgensen said, that when he started his job at Zynga near the middle of 2011, he had “17 facility people worldwide and 71 culinary people.” The emphasis on food as a worker incentive is indicative of the company’s youthful employee corps today, he noted. As it ages and its workforce ages, the company will have to tailor those incentives to include things like day care and retirement plans.

For now, however, workers can chill out in game rooms, take a kettlebell class on the sports court, stretch out in the yoga studio or hang out at a sports bar known as The Well. And pets are welcome. There are play areas for pooches and even pet insurance—none of which is terribly surprising for a company named after the founder’s dog.

Photos by Chad Ziemendorf

West Coast Commercial Real Estate News