This week was a productive one for our group. Following our meeting with Christina Briggs two weeks ago, we prepared a presentation for the Milpitas Economic Development and Trade Commission on our learnings from the meeting, which Sophia presented. The feedback was quite positive and the trade commission continued discussing the ideas throughout the night, which we counted as a success. We also finally got a response from the Boston mayor’s office with an offer to answer questions if we email them over, but given their previous response delays it unfortunately seems unlikely that we’ll have the time to incorporate their answers into our report. This is a pity since the Boston Seaport district would have been a valuable glimpse into long term repercussions of an innovation district in the larger community, but there is a sizable literature online about it so we hope that we’ll be able to leverage those resources sufficiently to write our report. We’re currently working on writing the draft of our final report. We were concerned about division of labor for the final report because we wanted to maintain consistency of writing style throughout the report, so we’ve decided to split the work into a draft, which Yvonne and I are working on, and the writing of the report itself, which will be done by Sophia and Jessica.
Throughout this project, we’ve been consistently struggling with two major challenges, both of which are finally becoming less of a concern now. First, our project required a lot of contact with city officials, which was often difficult given their busy schedules. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we struggled a lot throughout with the vagueness of the project. In contrast to many of the other projects which had very concrete action items to execute on which were already defined at the start of the project, ours felt very open ended. I know I personally did not feel that I was qualified to advise a city council whose jobs were effective economic development on how to do so. We were often unsure of what the next step would be and how best to execute, and this led to some wasted time where we were just trying to figure out how to approach the problem. Alex’s support was invaluable in this regard; if he had not been there guiding us to the right people and giving suggestions on concrete action items this project would have seemed intractable. This project has taught me the difficulty of organizing these kinds of broad projects encompassing so many interests, and the crucial importance of having an experienced leader who knows how to create a plan for less experienced but capable team members to execute on. It taught me that I still have a lot to learn, especially in becoming the former.
This week’s discussion in class has been a relevant one on the topic of the innovation district. It’s quite likely, given the emphasis of innovation districts on younger millennials, that an innovation district would incorporate many of the smart city features we discussed in class. Towards this end, we recognize both the potential benefits and the polarizing downsides that a smart city could produce. In particular, we think it’s critically important to recognize that the benefits that a networked and intelligently sensing city confer are often unequal, and we believe that it’s extremely important to consider how to ameliorate these effects. Some of this, we think, could be answered by ensuring that these changes are part of the public infrastructure rather than being fully supported by private interests, but we also recognize the difficulties in funding such an endeavor. One possible solution is something similar to the successful work in Fremont where in discussions with developers, the government was able to convince developers of the need to public amenities to enhance property values and attract residents, which persuaded the developers to provide the funding for many of these amenities themselves.
This past Friday we had the opportunity to visit the Fremont Innovation District with their Economic Director Christina Briggs. Below we have included a brief background summary on the district, some lessons learned from Fremont that we can apply to Milpitas, and various differences we noticed between the two cities.
Background on Fremont:
The Tesla factory, now the largest employer and anchor of the Warm Springs Innovation District, was once an auto factory for Toyota and Chevron. Once this car factory closed down, there was an economic crisis in the area as around 5000 jobs were lost. There was a lot of empty space and there was federal funding to do something with the area. BART construction for the new Warm Springs Station was already underway. Union Pacific Railroads bought the unoccupied land, and wanted to convert it into an old railyard. This would have been a low intensive use for the space, and would not be providing as many jobs as the auto factory once did. The city convinced Union Pacific to sell it by telling them that they would sell it for an increased price since the people buying it would use it for a higher and better use. The city also expedited the process and this transaction occurred within one year. The City of Fremont worked with the Urban Land Institute to determine how many residential units to put in. Developers want to build housing as opposed to building commercial spaces because there is a demand for housing due to the Bay Area housing crisis. It was important that the new development have space to meet the market demand, have a neighborhood feel, and create employment/commercial space. Together they decided on a total of 4000 housing units.
Lessons for Milpitas:
Fremont did a good job with Transit Oriented Development (TOD), mixing housing, transit, and jobs. They created a mainstreet within the Innovation District, called Innovation Way, to serve as a touchstone and central area. The BART Station connects to Innovation Way via a pedestrian bridge which the city developed and paid for. Similar to Milpitas, Fremont also has a downtown area and is in the process of further developing it. In both cases, there is the challenge of developing a sort of city (the innovation district) within a city. Fremont recognized the importance of creating community benefits with the new developments, so they built a new public school for Fremont ISD which was funded by the developers Valley Oak, Lenar, and Toll Brothers. These developers contributed a total of $50 million for the construction of this school. Fremont recognized that creative collisions, a key part of innovation districts, are harder to achieve in new development scenarios versus in places like Cambridge where these collisions happen more organically. Fremont has developed a ”weirdification” goal of trying to give the city and district an edigness factor. They hope to achieve this by building amenities and pedestrian friendly spaces where people can socialize and ideate. Fremont was not strict in requiring a certain amount of commercial space, instead they hope to make space and allow restaurants and retailers to move in more organically. Finally, Fremont thought a lot about the broader Bay Area area ecosystem and their role in it. They recognized that they are not Palo Alto, which has historically been R&D. Instead, they identified their strength in manufacturing and actually creating products, and they attempted to stay true to their roots.
The Warm Springs Innovation District is different from other innovation districts because it is a manufacturing anchored innovation district; its main employer is the Tesla factory. A key difference between Milpitas and Fremont is that in Fremont there were no new housing units built, so the housing units were built in conjuction with the construction of the commerical spaces. In Milpitas, the new housing developments are already built or under construction, and the innovation district is being built after. Another key difference between Milpitas and Fremont, is that the size of the Fremont district is much larger than the intended area for the Milpitas district, making placemaking potentially harder in Fremont than in Milpitas.
This coming Monday we will be presenting at the Economic Development Meeting in Milpitas. The focus of our presentation will be on the take-aways from our tour of Fremont and the best practices that can be applied to Milpitas. We are excited for this opportunity, and to meet the other people from Milpitas involved with this project. This week we were finally able to get a hold of the Boston Innovation District, and we are going to schedule a conference call with them in the coming weeks.
At this point in our project, we have moved beyond ideation to formal organization of our paper, detailing what we consider to be the most pertinent components that an innovation district should address, especially in relation to the issues in the Bay Area. Social equity issues, as discussed in this class and with regards to affordable housing, concern us the most.
While writing for Politico, journalist Ethan Epstein described the changes San Francisco has made with regards to public— or rather, now private— housing in his article “How San Francisco Saved Its Public Housing by Getting Rid of It” (Epstein 2017). As the housing crisis and technology boom exacerbate gentrification and marginalize low income residents, Epstein describes how the privatization of previously city owned buildings has not only alleviated the stress of paying San Francisco’s characteristically high standard of living but has also provided amenities and afforded privileges that alleviate the stresses inherent to being low-income (i.e., lack of access to gyms, healthy options, stress relievers like massages). By doing so, this change affords the residents a higher quality of life and theoretically boosts confidence, happiness, and productivity.
Epstein’s article implies that there exists a feasible and sustainable way to provide equitable housing even amidst the rising median income of the Bay Area— at least, on the small scale. Elaborating on this model as well as other affordable housing complexes like 990 Pacific in Chinatown may provide insight as to how innovation districts can integrate affordable housing, with the many amenities and functions provided in the examples in San Francisco, into its design.
Innovation districts seek to create microcosms of creativity and to foster a sense of community and belonging. Creating such a community, however, requires a level of equity and equality between parties— a proxy for that being housing. The Milpitas Innovation District targets young tech entrepreneurs with, or looking for, high wage tech jobs. But as our mentor Alex Andrade explained, five service jobs accompany every one tech job. Since many of these service jobs have low wages in comparison to tech jobs, the idea of an innovation district seems to imply that these service jobs must be housed elsewhere. This false dichotomy between tech and service only contributes to gentrification. If the Milpitas Innovation District can provide equitable and accessible housing for both groups, it could limit the effects of gentrification and model equality in cultural and social spheres. Not only would these two groups interact with one another, but the amenities provided by accessible housing could mitigate differences in the daily rhythms of life.
More specific to our project, I am currently working on a literature review analyzing the extent of cultural inclusivity of innovation districts and the integration of different cultures, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes. We have divided the final research paper into segments and added more details to our timeline, including a conversation with Christina Briggs, the chief economic development director for the Fremont Innovation District, to gain insight on the issues she faced and any guidance or advice she would be willing to provide. We would like to also contact a member of the planning committee from the Boston Innovation District, but have had issues communicating; we are now expanding our search to other innovation districts and will be sending emails to people in the Seattle South Lake Union Innovation District as well as that in Detroit.
This week our team has been focusing on the best way to approach writing our final group report for our community partner. We have found reputable articles and outlined our paper. We want the paper to be both cohesive and consistent in our analysis of the two case studies. We did not realize how challenging writing a group report is, so this week in our team meeting we brainstormed various ways to write the paper. The first idea we came up with was assigning each person an aspect of the case study to focus on; for example, one person could focus on the economic aspects, such as incentivizing businesses to move into innovation districts, for both the Boston Seaport District and the Freemont Innovation District. A drawback to this approach is that the two cases are different and we don’t want to force a broad framework that may not necessarily fit or apply to the situation. The second idea we came up with was having two people focus on the Boston Seaport District and having the two other members of the team focus on the Fremont Innovation District. We are going to continue to discuss the best approach to writing the paper, as we add to our research and further develop our outline, but we all agreed that it would be best to meet to draft a conclusion and best practices section so that we can compare findings, discuss why the case studies matter, and relate our findings back to Milpitas. We think it is very important to synthesize our findings as a group, and make sure all of our perspectives are represented in the executive summary.
Next Friday, we are going to the Fremont Innovation District to meet with Christina Briggs, the Economic Development Director of the City of Fremont. We are planning on touring their district. Below are some of the questions we are planning on asking Christina:
On Monday in class, we visited the Stanford Educational Farm and heard from Ryan Thayer on what he learned from working with corner stores in the Tenderloin District. The unifying thread for our visit to the farm and our discussion with Ryan was food security. While, the development of an innovation district in Milpitas does not directly tie back to food security, the introduction of an innovation district to the Milpitas area does have the potential to impact the composition of the city, and thus potentially impacting the food landscape. On our visit to Milpitas, we noted that there was only one grocery store in the city, a bargain grocery store located on the outskirts. Alex pointed out the location of the Sunday Farmer’s Market and told us that many people buy their fresh produce from there. Additionally, many of the restaurants we saw were mom and pop shops and many of them also appeared to be run by immigrant families. While the main focus for our project, is not on food security, I think we can find ways to include this in our report as it is an important topic relating back to social equity, something our team is really interested in. Additionally, this is an important issue for the city to consider going forward, as it is important to make sure residents have access to healthy options; however, the city must be strategic to work with existing restaurant and grocery store owners, so that they do not cause local businesses to be displaced.
Over the past two weeks the two primary accomplishments of our group have been developing a more comprehensive Scope of Work and visiting the city of Milpitas with our community partner Alex. Our visit not only helped us visualize the future innovation district and its surroundings, but lead us to understand the implication and impact that this innovation district will have on the surrounding culture, physical characteristics, and development of the city of Milpitas. As mentioned in Plan Bay Area which we read this week, a major goal of future development of the Bay Area it to address the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing. In Milpitas, we saw a shockingly high amount of new housing and housing developments. These housing developments mainly target young couples and their children. Families living in these housing developments tend to be highly educated, which in the Bay Area means they are likely to have tech jobs. Based on what our community partner Alex, told us these new residents are most likely driving a long distance to go to work in San Jose or to even further cities. This indicates a mismatch of jobs and housing, and the creation of the innovation district can effectively alleviate this problem by bringing suitable jobs to those Milpitas residents, so that they do not have to commute. A reduced commute is both sustainable, as it reduces the per-capita gas emission, and important to improve the resident’s quality of life, as they spend fewer hours driving to work each day.
Additionally, this visit helped us to further understand the social equity issue that has been a primary focus for our project group and a key problem addressed in Plan Bay Area. Alex told us that one tech job typically brings five jobs in the service sector. We observed that the city currently does not have many retail stores and restaurants, and the only grocery store we saw was a bargain grocery store at the edge of the city. It would be beneficial for the city if the service industry started thriving as the innovation district takes off, offering more service sector jobs for residents. One consideration that would need to be made is where these employees will live and whether or not there is an appropriate amount of lower-income housing currently available in Milpitas or plans exist to build more. Additionally, it is quite obvious that many of the current restaurants are run by older Milpitas residents including many immigrants. It is important to keep the current residents in mind as Milpitas is one of the most diverse areas in the Bay Area, with a majority Asian and Latinx population. We are wondering to what extent the current local community would be affected by the development of innovation district. In this week’s Department of Transportation Meeting workshop, we witnessed first hand how important it is to think about different stakeholders and take their needs into consideration. This lesson is something we will take with us as we continue to help create a plan for the innovation district.
This week’s class also showed us the importance and effects of zoning and urban planning. It is interesting to see how city planning influences the ambiance of the area. In the case of Milpitas, we see that its Main Street has mostly one story buildings and a lot of empty lots. Additionally, there is also an industrial park in Milpitas that is currently occupied by churches. Both cases indicate either a lack of urban planning or a failure to execute on the plan.
Moving forward, we are very excited about our meeting with Christina Briggs, the director of the Innovation Planning Committee for the Fremont Innovation District. We have drafted a list of questions that hopefully address all our concerns regarding social equity, the housing problem, and integrating the transportation system into the planning process. We have also begun a conversation with two members from the Seaport Innovation District in Boston, and we hope to learn more from them about integrating a city’s unique location and culture into the plans to develop an innovation district. In the coming week, our team will be focusing on drafting our research paper.