NJ’s Suburban Office Parks Turning into Dinosaurs in Evolving Economy

Joe Hernandez, WHYY | January 24, 2013 | More Issues, Planning
Rutgers study, retrofitted building in Iselin both reflect trend toward edgier, more flexible workplaces

Say goodbye to the office park as we know it.

New Jersey’s vast stock of suburban office complexes, built in a decades-long construction boom beginning in the late 1970s, is failing to meet the needs of a changing economy and the desires of new workers, according to a recent report from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

That has some architects and city planners reimagining the suburban office building itself. And this architectural trend has begun to gain steam in New Jersey, with office buildings like CENTRA Metropark.

“It’s too early to say that this is the new state of the world, that the office parks of the ‘80s and ‘90s are white elephants,” says Joseph Seneca, a professor at the Bloustein School, “but there is the issue of how as a state we reinvent the attractiveness of those spaces for the new emerging economy.”

“Reinventing the New Jersey Economy: New Metropolitan and Regional Employment Dynamics,” a report co-authored by Seneca and James Hughes, dean of the Bloustein School, says New Jersey is once again losing jobs to neighboring New York City, a longtime economic competitor.

In 1950, New York City’s total employment was more than double that of New Jersey.

That trend had reversed by the year 2000, with New Jersey boasting an employment base 7 percent larger than that of New York City.

“New Jersey changed from a badly aging manufacturing state — a state hemorrhaging industrial-age jobs and physical plants — to a leading-edge, postindustrial, information-age, service economy, comprising legions of high-wage, middle-skilled knowledge workers,” according to the report.

But all of that turned on a dime in the new millennium. By 2010, after the housing bubble burst and a multi-year recession was just beginning to ease, New Jersey had lost 228,300 jobs, while New York City had lost only 33,300.

The federal government’s bailout helped keep Wall Street afloat, but New Jersey’s “knowledge workers” lost their jobs to outsourcing and the automation of processing jobs in fields like law and accounting, according to Hughes. Industries that formed the foundation of New Jersey’s economy as recently as a decade ago began to shrink.

What grew out of the old economy were booming high-technology, biotechnology, and computer science industries, to name a few. Work in these fields emphasizes collaboration but also allows employees to “become untethered from the workspace” and stay productive on the move, says Seneca.

Workers’ personal and professional desires are also changing. The emerging generation of young, tech-savvy workers “were born and raised in suburbia and find it extraordinarily boring,” says Hughes. Many of them don’t even have driver’s licenses. “They want edgy work environments, which does not bode well for those older office parks that require long commutes and are boring during the day.”

To appeal to this new generation of workers, business owners in New Jersey are beginning to consider not only where but how to construct their suburban offices, as with CENTRA Metropark in Iselin.

“What we did here is really change the perception of the building,” says Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates managing principal Lloyd Sigal. “People have a connection to this building now. In the past you would have just driven by it as fast as possible.”

Just a few years ago, a hulking, uniform building and an asphalt parking lot sat where CENTRA is now. But KPF stripped the original structure down to its steel skeleton and constructed the ultramodern design in its place.

“We were trying to shed the plastic-bag mentality of throwing everything away and starting over again,” says KPF design principal Hugh Trumbull. Sustainability and environmental impacts were major factors in the decision to not totally demolish the previous building.

KPF also aimed to increase the feeling of community in the new building. Unlike in urban settings, “most of those buildings in suburbia have a signature front door that faces the roadway, which is never used,” says Trumbull. “They move around behind the building or go in through the parking garage, and enter through the back door as if you were running through the mud room of someone’s house.”

The front door of CENTRA is a wide-open, piazza-style entrance, meant to be a meeting place for workers rather than a turnstile.

But CENTRA got more than just an exterior makeover. According to Trumbull, the previous building had tight interior spaces and a complex mechanical system to distribute warm and cool air throughout the building. KPF opened up those rooms to make larger, more collaborative workspaces, and installed high-performance walls that make the building more energy-efficient.

Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects gave CENTRA an Institute Honor Award, noting that the building’s construction “has resulted in improvements of neighboring structures, proving that design can have a ripple effect in an otherwise mundane context.”

CENTRA isn’t alone in its mission to adapt to a new economy in New Jersey.

After the pharmaceutical company Merck acquired Schering-Plough, it made plans to relocate many of its workers from its Whitehouse Station facility in central New Jersey to the former headquarters of Schering-Plough in Kenilworth, just a few miles from Newark. And Novo Nordisk’s new home office in Plainsboro sits just down the road from Princeton University, halfway between Philadelphia and New York.

While no companies have completely abandoned the suburban office park mentality of the 1980s, the tide is beginning to turn.

“We don’t have yet one example of a full transformation,” says Hughes, “but the feedback I’ve gotten is that planners are really starting to discuss this a lot. We’ll be seeing a lot of work done in this area in the future.”