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Why Is Salesforce Taking Over Skyscrapers Around America?

After a day in the clouds at San Francisco’s biggest cloud company, we think we know

Ringer illustration

From the top of the Salesforce Tower, you can see the girders in the distance foreshadowing the Chase Center, the future home of the Golden State Warriors. The team is headed there only by the grace of the cloud-computing giant, which sold the plot of land to the Warriors ownership group in 2015. Salesforce had been planning to build out on the Chase Center parcel, constructing a sprawling 14-acre campus that would have included shops, restaurants, and a large open plaza with a reflecting pool. Instead, the company decided to build up—way up, 1,070 feet in the air, to the highest point in an office building west of Chicago. That’s where I’m standing when Elizabeth Pinkham, Salesforce’s executive vice president of global real estate, points south to the Golden State construction project, past hundreds of low-slung buildings that have traditionally defined the local landscape.

“It almost feels like you’re swooping in over the city,” she says of our perch. “This is becoming the new heart of San Francisco.”

Victor Luckerson

If not its heart, the Salesforce Tower will certainly be the city’s most visible appendage. The 61-story gray obelisk redefines the San Francisco skyline, looming over its neighbors and peeking out at residents from vantage points citywide. (CEO Marc Benioff tweeted a link to a blog called “Just the Tip,” which captures photos of the top of the tower from various angles; the tweet was later deleted.)

Salesforce is the tower’s namesake and largest tenant, occupying about 60 percent of the building. The company, launched nearly 20 years ago by Benioff just a couple of miles from the tower, sells other companies cloud-based services to help them manage their relationships with customers. By all accounts, this should be the blandest business west of Dunder Mifflin. But in the enterprise world, Salesforce is a titan that ably competes with larger firms like Oracle and Microsoft. In 2016, it came close to acquiring Twitter, and also just missed out on LinkedIn. Its annual tech conference, Dreamforce, attracted 170,000 attendees to downtown San Francisco in November. According to Pinkham, it was the energy of Dreamforce that inspired the company to move forward with a bold plan to reinvent and standardize its office space worldwide under a set of principles it calls “Ohana design” (Ohana means “family” in Hawaiian—more on that later). The thousand-foot tower is the boldest symbol of Salesforce’s workplace vision.

The building opened for business in January, welcoming a handful of Salesforce employees with a local DJ and a corporate-branded photo booth in the building lobby. Later this year a transit hub will open next door, bearing Salesforce’s name, as will an elevated public park that will ferry people to ground level via gondola. Other companies, like WeWork, are also planning to open large offices in the building. For San Francisco, the christening of the tower is a moment both celebratory and ominous. The city has never been a grander nexus of power, but it’s also never been more exclusive.

Victor Luckerson

Salesforce seems keenly aware of this tension, which may be why the top floor of the building has a charitable bent. Dubbed the Ohana Floor, it will eventually be a sprawling multipurpose lounge, complete with a kitchen manned by a gourmet chef, columns covered in lush vegetation, and a meeting area encircled by electronic benches that recede into the ground. Salesforce employees will be able to relax or hold meetings in the space, while nonprofits can use it on nights and weekends for free. For now, though, it’s a drab gray work-in-progress, with pieces of furniture and color swatches cast about as Pinkham and her team try to settle on precise style specifications. “This floor is really gonna feel more residential,” she says, asking me to visualize a sliding glass door here, a winding staircase there. “This is what we almost like to call the ‘world’s greatest living room.’”

Victor Luckerson

Beneath the top floor, Salesforce has created a tranquil, vaguely tropical office experience based on “Ohana design.” Benioff has something of an obsession with Hawaii, prompted by a sabbatical he took to the state’s largest island before founding his company in 1999. He reportedly wore Hawaiian shirts to work in the company’s early years and signs emails with the salutation “Aloha.” Salesforce’s corporate values are now shaped by Hawaiian culture and customs, or at least Benioff’s interpretation of them.

In a typical redesigned Salesforce office, a foyer near the elevator bank is lined with massive photos of the company’s various charitable deeds. Beyond the foyer, rows and rows of pristine desks and PCs sit largely empty. Instead of assigning employees seats, Salesforce assigns them floors and allows them to float from one area to another as they see fit. At night, workers clean all the desks, so that each morning brings another uncluttered experience, like a freshly wiped iPhone. The only items employees will find at their desk every day are an illustration of Salesforce’s various cartoon mascots frolicking in nature and a backpack filled with three days’ worth of food and water, in case an earthquake upends civilization.

Victor Luckerson

There’s a meditation room on every floor, designed under the consultation of French monks, complete with plush pillows and a tablet that issues breathing directions in a soothing female voice. A custom-built ventilation system pumps fresh air throughout the building, which the company says improves cognitive functions. A communal lounge and kitchen area offers coffee and snacks, but not the typical kegs and bar carts that are tech company staples. “We do not serve alcohol here. Did you see any?” Pinkham asks. I shake my head. “OK, good.”

The company’s revenue is growing fast, as is its head count. Hence the lavish HQ expansion, which is costing the company $560 million in rent across more than 15 years, as well as another $130 million in building improvements. Salesforce already has a pair of smaller towers on the same block, as well as other office buildings a short walk away. Right now, 35 percent of Salesforce’s offices globally look like the floors in the Salesforce Tower. Eventually, all of them will.

With its increased physical presence, the company’s name is likely to start rattling around in the heads of people who never once think about cloud-based enterprise software. There are other Salesforce Towers sprouting up in Indianapolis, New York, and London. “We’re not shy,” says Pinkham. “We love to take over big ground-floor lobbies and show who we are to the world and invite people in to learn who we are and what we care about.”

Outside the Salesforce Tower, a crush of white-collar workers in business suits, hoodies, and flannel scurry around downtown San Francisco. Across the street, a hulking glass edifice called the Millennium Tower looks like the perfect home for the city’s wealthiest residents, except for the fact that it’s sinking. The building developers are currently facing lawsuits from angry residents who say their home values have plummeted after the “Leaning Tower of San Francisco” made headlines. One reason the city hasn’t been a land of skyscrapers is because its downtown is built on pliable landfill rather than bedrock, according to Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington.

But there are also cultural reasons that it took so long for a building the size of the Salesforce Tower to rise. Since the 1950s, many locals have fought to keep skyscrapers out of the city, a transformation that was decried as “Manhattanization.” Zoning restrictions turned their preference into law. “That was the battle cry: ‘Don’t Manhattanize San Francisco,’” says Jasper Rubin, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at San Francisco State University. “There’s an unusual connection between the built environment and the topography of San Francisco, the hilly peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. When you build tall buildings, people felt it would disrupt connection between the cozy environment San Francisco had and its topography.”

San Francisco’s unprecedented prosperity ultimately made Manhattanization inevitable. During the late-’90s tech boom, many companies used existing buildings as office space, according to Rubin. Salesforce, for example, turned a one-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood of Telegraph Hill into its first office. But the current boom has seen a much larger influx of tech workers into the city and its famous suburbs than during the dot-com era. They’ve simultaneously created an intense need for more space—both office and home rents in the city rival or exceed New York’s—and eclipsed the longtime residents who might have cared more about protecting an abstract sense of city identity. “There’s a newer population here. It’s a city of people who come from other places,” says Rubin, who also worked as a San Francisco city planner in the early 2000s. “I think there has been enough of a shift that the old guard has either retired or passed on and a younger generation is far less resistant to tall buildings.”

At least eight other high rises are currently being built in the vicinity of the Salesforce Tower, according to Curbed. And of course, these buildings are being designed with the intent of attracting more wealth to the city, rather than tempering it. A 2017 law will require new apartment buildings to dedicate around 20 percent of their units to affordable housing, but more extreme measures, such as putting affordable-housing complexes in affluent neighborhoods or raising sales taxes to provide more aid to the city’s large homeless population, are often railroaded by citizen backlash. There is no end in sight to the city’s housing crisis. “For some people, Salesforce Tower represents the continued and perhaps even intensifying threat of gentrification,” Rubin says.

None of this is apparent near the Salesforce Tower, which radiates blunt power more than it does opulence. But the tower and its neighborhood represent just one part of Mission Street, a main city thoroughfare that winds from San Francisco Bay in the north all the way to the southern edge of town. As you walk further south, the skyscrapers recede and give way to more modest headquarters for Uber and Twitter, younger epicenters of wealth and disruption. Just south of their offices is the actual Mission District, a historically Latino neighborhood that has seen a huge influx of white residents this decade. Today, this part of Mission Street has all the typical signs of gentrification, with bodegas jutting up against gastropubs and clean-cut professionals jostling past homeless beggars. On a side street near the main drag, a homeless man has set up a large tent directly under a row of luxury condos. In many ways San Francisco seems to embody modern America’s core contradictions, just cramped into an uncomfortably tight space.

Victor Luckerson

Again, Salesforce seems more invested in facing the city’s challenges than many firms. CEO Marc Benioff is a fourth-generation San Franciscan, who pioneered a “1-1-1” model of corporate philanthropy in which Salesforce donates 1 percent of its equity, products, and employees’ time to charitable causes (employees get seven paid days off per year to volunteer). He’s personally donating $10 million to a $30 million fund aimed at fighting family homelessness. He’s spoken out against the Ellis Act, a California law that is used to evict low-income renters from their homes, and donated $200 million to a pair of area children’s hospitals. Even some of the design decisions at Salesforce Tower will have broader community benefits—because there is no central cafeteria, workers are likely to visit area restaurants for lunch, pumping money into the local economy.

Still, Salesforce has an estimated 6,600 employees in San Francisco and plans to add at least a thousand more as its new tower is populated. That will put more strain on a city already well beyond a reasonable cost of living standard. “With San Francisco continuing to attract the kind of talent that it has and a building like Salesforce [Tower], there are gonna be a lot more workers. And those workers are going to want to be in the city,” says Malo Hutson, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley. “My sense is you’re going to see a domino effect, and I think it’s already starting to happen, and even those people who consider themselves to be somewhat middle class or ‘doing OK’ are now even getting priced out.”

Ask a tech company how to solve a thorny social problem, and the solution is often more—more Uber rides to lower traffic congestion, or more time chatting with friends on Facebook to solve political turmoil. So it makes sense that the solution for San Francisco is much the same. “I know there’s a lot of new development coming, including affordable housing, all the time,” Pinkham tells me. “Just right around us, there’s a lot of new towers, including housing, that will be going up in the next two to five, six years. This has not ended. This is a re-creation of San Francisco that’s just begun.”

From the top of the Salesforce Tower, it’s easy to see San Francisco’s most revered symbols, both old and new. The Transamerica Pyramid, the city’s former tallest building, looks comically puny. AT&T Park, where the Giants have played since 2000, is the epicenter of another hotbed of revitalization. The Golden Gate Bridge off in the distance looks familiar even if you’ve never set eyes on it.

But even on a clear day—the sky was a brilliant blue when I visited—the people on the streets are invisible, or at best, anonymous data points. The challenge for San Francisco’s most powerful players, as it continues to build higher and higher, will be managing to still see all those people from a perch so high in the clouds.