Revitalizing Suburbia: Giving Aging Malls and Office Parks a New Lease on Life

Tara Nurin | March 19, 2014 | Housing, More Issues, Social
Rather than standing empty, yesterday's archetypes of suburban sprawl are being reinvented as vibrant places to work, play, and live

The former Bell Labs office building in Holmdel, the largest empty office building in the world, has sat vacant since Alcatel-Lucent left eight years ago.
Holmdel’s iconic Bell Labs Research complex — the site of at least one Nobel prize discovery — now has another distinction, one that residents and elected officials would sooner do without.

The circa 1962 complex is the largest empty office building in the nation.

Architecturally significant for its mirrored glass façade, the 2 million-square-foot facility has sat abandoned on its 473-acre campus since 2006.

The empty building exemplifies the deep trouble that New Jersey’s office parks and shopping centers face, victims of the recent trend that favors reinvesting in urban centers over continuing suburban and exurban sprawl — a trend taking hold across the state and the country.

This urban migration compounds the problem of an existing glut of retail space that real estate analyst Jeff Otteau predicts will meet the state’s needs for another 17 years. He also cites a surfeit of office space that won’t be used up until 2043. And because the state’s suburban corporate and commercial construction boomed more than 20 years ago, the New Jersey League of Municipalities Educational Foundation calls the current building stock not just aging but obsolete.

Some developers and municipalities are finding success creatively reusing these so-called stranded assets, converting them into mixed-use projects that offer a place to live and a place to work — vibrant daytime and nighttime activities.

But to do that, they first have to ensure cooperation from the public and loosen zoning restrictions that allow for corporate or commercial use only. Only then can they hope to reverse the tide and keep these structures relevant.

“Information technology, globalization, and demographics have changed the very internal functions of office buildings, and their preferred locations,” the foundation wrote last summer to promote a forum on redeveloping suburban office parks.

Yet there are some creative methods being employed to transform these properties into mixed-use campuses that can serve as examples to other cities.

The Holmdel Bell Labs complex and the CooperDale Plaza in Somerdale, Camden County, are two examples. The developers and municipalities driving these successful projects say they’ve managed to win over the public, change restrictive zoning laws, and create adaptive places that combine living, working, and playing in ways that, said Bell Labs developer Ralph Zucker, “bring urban life back to suburbia.”

Creating a Millennial Place

Once home to 6,000 engineers and scientists who pioneered major advances in telecommunications like the cell phone, the Bell Labs site, with its 4,700 parking spots and lack of connection to transit or town, is no longer attractive to companies looking to hire young employees. Millennial workers, who seem to prefer walkable communities, often choose location first and job second, forcing companies to follow them instead of vice versa. Thus, desirable high-tech firms find themselves shying away from the massive corporate footprints of the past.

Sensing that “Google wasn’t going to come in here and take over the whole thing,” said Carlos Rodrigues, principal at Rodrigues Urban Design in Princeton, developers saw a need to diversify the building, or “break it up into little pieces.”

Lakewood-based Somerset Development, which took over the Bell Labs complex in 2008, is making diversity its strength. Even when Bell Labs was the sole tenant, its corporate parent provided a host of amenities — like doctor’s offices, fitness clubs, and restaurants — for employees.

Somerset is treating these features as the building blocks of a lifestyle center and indoor promenade, where companies can lease offices next to eateries, boutiques, a hotel, conference center, and a one-stop 400,000-square-foot health center with doctor’s offices, labs and imaging centers.

Also on the Holmdel campus — and going on the market late this spring — are 225 mostly age-restricted homes, which allows the project to qualify for tax incentives under the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 (EO13).

“Now you don’t need to check your life at the door in the morning when you come in to work,” said Zucker.

The Somerdale Solution

The same mixed-use philosophy came into play when Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante set out to reverse a 20-year slide in the suburban Philadelphia town’s population and a precipitous drop in tenants and ratables in one of its primary shopping centers.

Passanante applied for grants to minimize the disadvantages of the site — outmoded design, poor visibility from the highway, and its hilly, wetlands location – and maximize its assets. The latter included a rail stop one-quarter of a mile away, I-295 two miles away, and busy Route 30 adjacent to it.

Then he lured a Walmart away from a nearby town that was fighting its construction — forcing the retailer to build to his design specs — and erected several hundred affordable and market-rate homes, filled the center with public events, and beautified surrounding parks and streetscapes to make them more pedestrian-friendly.

“We targeted the young thirty-ish person working in Center City (Philadelphia) and we have hit it spot on,” Passanante said. “They’re thanking us because they love the walkability to the highspeed line, LA Fitness, Walmart, walking trails, Applebee’s, etc. . . . ”

The Public Question

But Passanante knew he couldn’t bring in a Walmart or much else without rallying support from his residents. And Zucker spent years trying to convince the community that his vision was better than a plan they favored to demolish the Bell Labs facility and build single-family homes and a golf course.

In the end, both mayor and developer won over their constituents. But it wasn’t easy.

Passanante, who kept the planning internal instead of shopping it to an outside developer wanted the project to reflect what people wanted. He met with school officials to discuss his housing plans; reached an agreement with unions that protested the choice of Walmart. He also asked residents to choose park benches and trees and asked them back for second and third meetings to show he’d listened to their requests.

Most importantly, Passanante made residentss feel like it was their project. In the end, he says, no one showed up at official council hearings to complain, and the project received preliminary and final site approval in just one meeting.

“We actually listened and dealt with all the requests so it was an easy lift when we got to planning board level,” he said.


It hasn’t been so stress-free for Somerset. Even though Zucker says his firm tried to engage the community early and held a series of public forums inside the facility after taking over in 2008, residents and elected officials remained hostile.

He lays part of the blame on the fact that the empty building acted like a fortress and fostered resentment within the community.

“They (didn’t) have a feeling for what’s here. You were stopped by guards and couldn’t get in; it was viewed more as a threat to a disengaged and hostile public,” he said.

But that attitude changed the following year, after Somerset hosted a one-night town-center “pop-up” that brought in 1,500 residents to listen to live jazz, eat ice cream, mingle with developers, and get a feel for the completed project.
Slowly, after that, it changed from a combative to a collaborative process, and on the night Somerset received its site plan approval, Zucker says there was no public opposition and, “There were more reporters in the room than citizens.”

Shifting the Zoning Paradigm

Part of the challenge in rehabbing old suburban spaces, say planners, is local governments’ resistance to rezoning these properties to accommodate multiple uses or housing — especially housing, which will more students in local schools. After all, these municipalities were happy to encourage commercial development in the first place, thanks to the perception that it generates tax revenues while requiring few services. But without variances or rewrites, land-use experts warn municipalities will suffer indefinitely under the weight of non-ratable or non-revenue-generating dinosaurs.

“It’s not that there are so many outdated buildings in New Jersey or the United States but usually the zoning is archaic,” said Zucker. “We’ve zoned many of our most prominent places into obsolescence. We’re forgetting places evolve over time.”

At last year’s NJLM forum on the future of suburban office parks, several prominent speakers instructed municipalities shouldering declining office ratables to work with developers to turn their stranded assets into opportunities. Those that don’t do so risk running out of space to accommodate the changing needs of the workforce and pushing out kids who may grow up to contribute to the local economy.

Writing for New Jersey Future, Director of Communications Elaine Clisham summarized a presentation by Joseph Maraziti, former chair of the state planning commission. “As the quantity of developable land decreases and the state’s population increases, the need for sites like these will increase since they will represent the only viable growth areas. He recommends that municipalities go through the difficult task of reexamining their zoning ordinances to ensure that they encourage creative reuse of such sites — reuse, he says, in ways that citizens haven’t yet been able to imagine or understand.”

These projects were detailed at a New Jersey Future forum in New Brunswick this month

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