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Developers Recycle Suburban Office Parks For New Age


There is a big real estate change happening in suburbs across the country. Corporations are leaving their suburban headquarters and going to the city. Like McDonald's, which announced just yesterday it was moving from Oak Brook, Ill. into Chicago. So now big suburban office parks are struggling to find new tenants. NPR's Joel Rose reports on some developers who are trying to reinvent those office parks.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For more than 40 years, Bell Labs nurtured patents and Nobel Prizes deep in the New Jersey suburbs. The center of the campus is a modernist office building designed by architect Eero Saarinen.

RALPH ZUCKER: He created this incredible, hundred-foot wide, almost a quarter of a mile long pedestrian street that anchors really four buildings in this huge glass box.

ROSE: Ralph Zucker is the developer who's in charge of reinventing the old Bell Labs. It was empty for eight years. No single company wanted to buy 1.6 million square feet of office space in sleepy Holmdel, N.J. So Zucker rebranded the campus as Bell Works and started pitching it as a hub for technology companies.

ZUCKER: A collaborative, inspirational space to work, to live, to play, to shop, to sort of bring an urban existence in which everything is at your fingertips - to bring that into suburbia.

ROSE: Zucker says he has leased 20 percent of the office space. The software company WorkWave was one of the first to sign on. CEO Chris Sullens says it's the kind of place that appeals to millennials - workers born after 1980 - who make up roughly half his company.

CHRIS SULLENS: They want to work with great technology. They want to work with great people. And they want to do it in an environment that they like to come to work in. From our standpoint, we get that feel and that vibe here.

ROSE: While baby boomers were content in the suburbs, millennials seem to prefer cities, where there's more public transit, more walkability, more restaurants and more retail. And American corporations are chasing younger workers back downtown. Weyerhaeuser is moving into Seattle. General Electric is leaving leafy, suburban Connecticut for Boston. Here's CEO Jeffrey Immelt at an event in March.


JEFFREY IMMELT: This move for GE is all about the next 40 years. What can we do better? Who's smarter than we are? To look at the window and see deer running across - you know, that just - I don't care about that stuff.


ROSE: That that's great for cities, but not so good for the suburban towns and office parks those companies are leaving behind. The office vacancy rate in some suburban markets is 20 percent or even higher.

LOUISE MOZINGO: They were intended to capture the worker for the whole day, and current workers don't like that context.

ROSE: Louise Mozingo is a professor at UC Berkeley. She wrote a history of suburban office parks called "Pastoral Capitalism." Mozingo says companies originally moved out to the 'burbs to lure brain power away from university campuses and attract well-educated women to work as secretaries.

MOZINGO: Nobody has a secretary in the traditional sense anymore. You know, you're doing all your own typing these days. So you don't have clerical staff in the kinds of numbers that you used to have to have in the past.

ROSE: And companies just don't need as much space as they used to, says James Hughes, who teaches planning and public policy at Rutgers University.

JAMES HUGHES: Most of the suburban office buildings were built in the 1980s. It was built before the Internet. It's aging, and in many cases is obsolete.

ROSE: Hughes says some of those obsolete office parks may be able to reinvent themselves, but not all.

HUGHES: The plain vanilla structures that weren't high-quality to begin with, they may be biting the dust sometime soon.

ROSE: There's one big counterexample though, and that's in Silicon Valley, where Google, Facebook and Apple seem to be competing over who can build the most opulent suburban headquarters. But Hughes and others wonder if they will someday seem obsolete, too. Joel Rose, NPR News, Holmdel, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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