A Tale of Two Communities

April 23, 2018

Forty moneylenders turned down Jon Dishotsky before he got a loan to start Starcity, a dorm-style living model for people in San Francisco. They thought no one would catch on, and they had reason to think this. Dorms are a rite of passage for American university students that most give up as soon as they can. However, if you take away these from the dorms and replace them with working professionals many of the nuisances are no longer there. Instead, residents are left with what is most special about dorm life—the community.

The success of Starcity and other dorm-style properties is not only because of their affordable rents. While most tenants decide to move in because of the low rates of $1,400-2,400 a month compared to $3,300-4,300 for a typical San Francisco living space, they decide to stay because of the community they find. It fits the definition Aldo Cibic, architect, designer and member of the Italia Innovation faculty, gives of a lovely place in his book, Rethinking Happiness. He states it is a place “full of opportunities where people can meet together and do things together.”

This highlights a very prominent problem for today’s big city dwellers, especially in the Bay Area which stands as the absolute representation of the tech era. In a world where we buy groceries with a touch of a button, ask Alexa for the weather, and swipe right to flirt, we are bereft of real social interactions. Especially for those who don’t work in the tech bubble and make upwards of $100,000 a year, this environment can be extremely isolating.

Places like Starcity are good examples of human-centered and democratic design—services designed for the human. The Bay Area had the highest migration rate in the USA according to the real estate company Redfin, and many cite lack of intellectual diversity and high rent as reasons to leave. Dorm living addresses these fundamental needs for housing and community. Their success begs the question whether the big tech companies—Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon—that dominate our daily life are really designing with us in mind. What’s most concerning now is also that these very companies that changed the nature of social interactions are building communities of their own.

Facebook is trying its hand at building a community in real life with the Willow Village project—a 59-acre neighborhood between Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. It will have plazas, parks, grocery stores, a cultural center and bike path for those living in the 1,500 apartments. While 225 apartments will be sold below market rate, most of the 1,500 will be sold to Facebook employees. Not too far away Google is planning a similar project of constructing 5,000 homes on its property in Mountain View.

These efforts to build a town for employees might seem similar to the work of Brunello Cucinelli improving the town where his namesake cashmere company is based, however, there is a significant difference. Cucinelli, inspired by philosophers like Kant, Saint Benedict, Plato and others, developed a business acumen grounded in ethics and humanism. His work rebuilding the church, replacing the streets, restoring the piazzas, creating a library, and constructing a theatre for the workers came from a moral desire to give back to those responsible for the company’s success. It’s unclear whether the big tech communities are founded on such a benevolent philosophy.

While the projects sound awesome, they raise a lot of questions about companies building communities for themselves. In a culture where being the first one in and the last one out of the office is important, there is concern about how employees can disconnect when they practically live at the office and are surrounded by colleagues. They are probably not going to be afforded the 90-minute lunch break and nap time that Cucinelli gives.
There are other concerns about how hard it will be for people to leave jobs when their house is associated with it. Particularly for Silicon Valley, this is a big deal because so much of the culture is based on moving from one company to the next. Also, in a community where people are working for a big company with plans to start their own start-ups, how will they be able to work freely during their off-time?

Further, since most of the residents will be employees, they will be incredibly insular enclaves for the wealthy lacking diversity. Architectural Digest reports what Cibic pointed out at San Francisco’s most recent FOG Design + Art Fair: “it’s a mixture of people which makes a society. Otherwise, it’s only the rich or only the poor, in which case you have ghettos, not communities.” Considering Cibic’s quote, it’s curious whether these companies know how to build a community. While they know how to build impressive facilities, they may not totally understand the social ramifications they are setting in motion for Silicon Valley. As the fancy communities manifest themselves, we’ll see whether or not they can strengthen the community framework. The success of Starcity, which everyone thought would fail, points out that we shouldn’t prejudge a project’s worth by how it looks, but the value it brings.