During this first week of our project, we met with our project mentors and discussed initial thoughts and scoping around the project itself. This project learning fell into a few main categories: defining an innovation district, beginning to understand how other innovation districts were designed and flourished, and understanding how the City of Milpitas is similar and different to those other cities which have successfully created innovation districts.
Broadly speaking, an innovation district is a realization of the shifting desires that millennials and younger generations have around their workplaces as well as the changing requirements of workplaces in the 21st century. Previous generations saw the rise of the industrial district, where proximity allowed reduced shipping costs and made job-seeking easy, and the research park, where an isolated environment allowed for the protection of intellectual property and mirrored the wealth of its’ workers. Now we see a reversal of that same trend with millennial workers. In a world where financial security is increasingly rare, children come later in life, and entertainment no longer comes from within the home, millennials are looking to their living spaces to provide a vibrant community with entertainment, amenities, and a range of job opportunities. Simultaneously, the rise of the Information Era has made apparent the value of cross-company collaboration, industry partnerships, and disruptive new ideas, so innovation districts bring together a range of companies, accelerators, incubators, and research institutions. All of these components are brought together into a compact, walkable, transit-accessible space complete with social spaces and public utilities.
So how do we create such a space? We began studying the case studies of the Boston Seaport District and the Fremont Warm Springs District, both of which are examples of innovation districts under development. We learned about the Triple Helix model of leadership, where government, industry, and research institutions collaborate in a structured manner. This brings together the powerful forces required for an innovation district to thrive, enabling more effective and realizable development plans. We also learned about the importance of
nontraditional community outreach. Advertising for the Boston Seaport district was done primarily via “community brokers” who would embed themselves into local communities and seek out entrepreneurs and other leaders who could support the nascent innovation district. Notably, the economic development of the Seaport district was reportedly slow until the mayor was able to convince MassChallenge, a local startup accelerator, to move in (in return for free rent, which again required convincing on the part of the mayor). This spoke to both the need for a “kickstart”, an initial push which begins a positive feedback loop of development, and to the need for a strong catalyzing agent who has the connections and the will to pull organizations together and enable development.
The city of Milpitas, however, has its own idiosyncrasies which present unique challenges for us. The proposed innovation district is separate from the housing zones, which precludes the same spatial intertwining of housing and social spaces that seem to have developed in other similar locations. A large portion of the proposed innovation district is currently occupied by a public storage facility, which we learned may be difficult to move due to its’ stable profits. About a mile away from the proposed site is the Great Mall, the largest shopping center in the area, which could either augment or compete with the social space that we would need to create in the new innovation district. We learned that a primary concern of the city council is that there is considerable housing development occurring in the Milpitas area, however, business development has been slower to come due to lack of amenities and lack of other businesses.
In line with some of the themes around environmental gentrification we discussed in class this week, a crucial concern for us as we move forward in this project is the disadvantaged people living in the area. Housing prices in the area are already in the millions for a townhouse, and creating an economic center close by will certainly drive those prices up if we don’t take action against it. There is a substantial Asian and Latino population in the area which may be vulnerable to displacement if tech companies move into the area. We discussed ideas about rent control or other tenant protection mechanisms which may help alleviate the problem, and it’s something that we will certainly discuss further as we move forwards.