Tech Companies Are Changing How They Interface With the Cities They’re Re-Shaping

Design for technology companies must dovetail with its urban context, argued a recent Think Tank panel.

STUDIOS Architecture designed the Lyft headquarters in San Francisco.

In the not-so-distant past, say, two decades ago, tech companies built large insular office parks in areas that could charitably be described as “exurban.” Parking was in abundance. Amenities, and the vendors operating them, had to be brought in. But just as investment has return to city centers in recent years, so have tech companies. In this reversal, the city has become a giant amenity.

The question of who benefits most from this interchange was the focal point of a recent Metropolis Think Tank event. The panel, which was held at STUDIOS Architecture‘s San Francisco offices, weighed the effects of disruption, the value of context, and the importance of neighborliness.

As Joe Drucker noted, you can’t call yourself a “disruptor”—as many tech firms do—without inviting a certain amount of criticism along the way. Drucker, who is head of facilities of the logistics company DoorDash, credits the best Bay Area companies with “thinking about the employee more than just the bottom line” and their willingness “to sacrifice a little bit of that bottom line in order to create a better employee experience.”

Acknowledging the negative side-effects, Drucker suggested taking the good with the bad. But the bad—most visible in the shortage of affordable housing in the city—cannot be so easily discounted. Mark Pfenninger, a principal at STUDIOS, noted how his clients are “much more focused on their public relations with the city” and advises them to foreground the contributions their move into a neighborhood will bring.

The Think Tank conversation was moderated by Metropolis‘s editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal and featured panelists (from left to right) Joe Drucker, head of estate facilities, DoorDash; Samantha Low, leasing agent, Cushman and Wakefield; Joshua Callahan, senior vice president, Jamestown L.P.; and Marc Pfenninger, principal, STUDIOS Architecture. Courtesy Michael O’Callahan

For Samantha Low, leasing agent at Cushman & Wakefield, “it’s never too early to involve experts to help you to strategize what your outlook would be.” She conveyed how she encourages her clients to interrogate themselves—to ask why—before choosing a location in which to invest real-estate dollars. As tech companies “urbanize, do they lock employees into a self-contained campus or open buildings up to the community, embracing interactions with non-employees? What are the amenities that employees actually want? Do companies bring in local caterers or ask employees to pay into the local economy by eating out for lunch?

The answers to these questions will determine whether one is a good or responsive neighbor or not. So it’s crucial to insert community development into the process from the get-go, advised Joshua Callahan, senior vice president at Jamestown LP, an owner and operator of commercial real estate. He cited the values of openness and inclusivity, which were literalized in some of the ideas the panelists tossed around. Activating ground-floor spaces of buildings for events, food halls, or even winter gardens can be a big “PR win” while costing little.

One challenge is balancing this neighborliness with security concerns. What level of porosity should exist between workplace and city, asked moderator and Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal. Tech brands are fueled by transparency, creativity, and openness, and employees don’t want to live locked away from the world, Drucker said, but as market disruptors, they have to keep some invisible walls up.

In the end, the panelists agreed that if tech companies want to improve their relationship to their host cities both parties need to think long term and keep talking. But there may be another important, but unengaged, influencer, suggested Rajagopal: “One problem is that we’re not connected enough to our lawmakers, and we don’t look at [this kind of engagement] as our responsibility as citizens.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on December 4 and 5, 2019, in San Francisco. The conversations were presented in partnership with DXV/Grohe, KI, National Office Furniture, and Teknion.

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