The rise of Silicon Beach – the term often used to collectively describe the tech businesses of Santa Monica and the greater Westside – has been a blessing and a curse. These businesses, which include feisty startups and established global companies, have brought jobs and tremendous amounts of capital to Westside communities. However, they have also been accused of creating traffic, disrupting community character, and being poor corporate citizens.
The Westside Urban Forum, a local nonprofit that sponsors monthly discussions on urban issues, recently hosted a panel discussion about the present and future of Silicon Beach. Panelists included Tricia Keane, Councilmember Mike Bonin’s deputy chief of staff; Eric Kirsten, entrepreneur-in-residence at Codesmith; Jim Kruse, senior managing director, CBRE; and Ronen Olshansky, co-founder & CEO of CrossCampus. Santa Monica Councilmember Gleam Davis served as moderator.
Many workers and companies prefer nontraditional office spaces and are attracted by Los Angeles’ lifestyle. Many start out in co-working spaces, such as CrossCampus, and then graduate to developing or owning office spaces. This progression has created tension in neighborhoods as new companies have moved into spaces that were not quite meant to be offices and that might not even be zoned for such uses.
Olshansky brought up the infamous example of Snap, the parent company of messaging app Snapchat, which has been accused of “colonizing” areas of Venice beach by leasing and buying many small properties, rather than moving to a traditional office tower or corporate campus. Keane said that such companies are not required to notify the relevant council office of their plans and therefore miss opportunities to establish good relationships with neighbors in the first place. She also noted that many tech companies, even mature ones, do not have government or community relations representatives.
Olshansky said many tech companies, especially start ups are in a fight for survival in an industry in which a week is the equivalent of a year in traditional industries, and they simply do not have the time or resources to dedicate to community outreach. They often plow ahead, using improvised office spaces and taking advantage of a talent pool that is excited to be in Los Angeles despite the region’s exorbitant rents.
The Westside Urban Forum invited representatives of Snap, Google, Hulu, and Riot Games. These invitations were tersely rejected by at least one company, and entirely ignored by others, suggesting that these companies have no interest in taking part in a discussion of their roles in civic affairs.
Audience member Jason Islas asked whether companies were willing to develop housing, or lobby for policies that would increase housing supply and, ideally, decrease housing costs. More housing on the Westside could also reduce traffic if housing is located near tech offices. Panelists knew of no such efforts in Southern California, suggesting that companies either do not care about their workers’ costs of living or are willing to pay higher wages in order to accommodate workers’ housing needs.
Snapchat messages may be fleeting, but it seems that Silicon Beach is here to stay. The question is, will it make the Westside a better place or be just another neighbor we see but don’t really know?
Josh Stephens is the board president of the Westside Urban Forum.