To the heart of the suburban dinosaur

This article in caught my eye: “C & W brings Merck Headquarters to Market“. It might well have read “brings HQ to life”, as if it was a dying old mammal! The article’s author, Antoinette Martin, describes the leviathan one-million square-feet HQ as:

“another of the big-footed “suburban dinosaurs” emerging on to the commercial office market in New Jersey”.

I once spent a week in one of these weird space-stations that never took off to ‘boldly go…’ Far from being excited by being in a foreign country, and experiencing the culture, I was neither! Much like a free-range chicken going on vacation to a battery-hen farm, I was bored rigid. Much later, the term ‘cube-farm’ was coined by somebody, and such places have been mocked by Dilbert. The concept of mixed-use development was entirely missing – staying in a nearby hotel, there was nothing to do, and nowhere to go. It was not a ‘human’ place.

People just don’t want these places – corporations might like the efficiency, but ‘people’ don’t. And corporations are full of people! But, there is good news for the next generation……

Antoinette Martin notes that developers and planners have learned to become creative about re-use of such unique spaces, however, quotes Andrew Merin, a vice-chairman of C&W.

“Every major corporate campus in New Jersey [USA] over the past three decades has either been re-purposed to meet the needs of a growing corporation’s new headquarters or positioned for innovative reuse”

The NAIOP in New Jersey [USA] discussed this issue: Panel of Experts Offers Solutions for Re-Imagining Suburban Offices

The title of NAIOP New Jersey’s March chapter meeting was “Dinosaurs or Diamonds? Re-Imagining New Jersey’s Suburban Office Spaces”. The link above talks of the “preference by a new generation to work in amenity-driven urban settings”. The discussion followed from a report (one of a series of Rutgers Regional Reports) by the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, titled ‘Reinventing the New Jersey Economy,’ issued at the end of 2012.

In a presentation prior to the panel discussion, Dr James Hughes, co-author of the report, said “By 2007, a new era dawned, with iPads, tablets and iPhones unshackling workers, who were no longer geography- or cubicle-tied”. Clearly, commercial real estate provision has a lengthy ‘lag’ behind demand. But people don’t want to work in these million sq.ft. suburban dinosaurs any longer. The offspring of the baby boomers, “are tech-savvy and like urban settings,” Hughes said. “The suburban corridors won’t necessarily be gone, but times have changed.”

From suburban dinosaur to new “town centre” – a more human urban setting

The developer of an even larger site, the two million-square-foot, 472-acre former Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, N.J., which successor Alcatel Lucent vacated in 2007, discussed their plans. Somerset Development “will be making improvements to recreate it as a town centre”. The Bell Labs complex will include a mix of residences, including affordable housing, both inside and outside of the main building. The building’s signature 70-foot tall atrium will re-emerge as a pedestrian promenade. The heart of the project will be its retail component, anchored by a 65,000-square-foot supermarket. Other components will include a 400,000-square-foot medical facility encompassing a health and wellness center, surgery centre, and an assisted living centre. Finally, a hotel and conference centre, and educational facilities, will round out the rebirth of the historic Bell Labs complex.

The PR article gives several more examples of “re-positioning” these large ex-corporate Headquarters facilities.

The dinosaur becomes agile, and avoids extinction

Yes, this is a well-disguised story about agile working! And social changes that go around, and in between. Ten years ago, most people did not have fast and reliable technology to enable them to work wherever they liked. Now that most knowledge workers do have this technology, they have started to change their whole day! They can work from home, so they don’t see the point (or like the cost, and environmental impact) of commuting too far. If the employer wants to see them in the office, at least a few times a week, they had better make it easy to get to.

Even better…offer someone a job….and availability of a flat/condo just a 5-minute walk away….oh, and a couple of restaurants, a gym, a nursery. Its also near the rail-hub to get into the city on Friday night, or for the weekend.

Your HR Chief will, at some point, realize that this set-up is an attractive part of the employment proposition – it may attract, and even retain, many employees. They may even trade-off a slightly lower salary. Shareholders will like that!…and, the heart of the old suburban dinosaur will be beating again. The same old corporate profit motive, but just quite a lot more pleasant to live around, maybe….

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  • Doug Langmead

    Having just spent a couple of days gridlocked in Doha, Qatar, where the entire urban infrastructure is being ripped up and reconfigured for the 2022 World Cup, any measure that reduces what should be a 15 minute-max commute down from 90-120 minutes, each way, in any direction has to be a massive leap forward in productivity, worker satisfaction and stress reduction. Dubai was in the same position 8 years ago, but now has urban corridors that drain the traffic to dormitory suburbs. Qatar’s ring roads create loops with no means of relief, and the urban centres of older European cities face the same problems.

    Mobility of information makes us less dependent on the inefficiencies of transportation.