2013-06-13

Turning Sad Suburban Office Parks Into Mixed-Use Destinations

As the suburbs slowly die, we need to do something with all that space.

You may not notice it driving through most towns, but the suburbs of the U.S. are going through some transformational changes. They’re getting poorer, especially compared to their city counterparts, and according to a Wall Street Journal article, office parks—the soulless staple of drab suburbs—are increasingly being converted into mixed-use complexes that contain shops, apartments, trails, and of course, office space.

During the peak of suburbia’s popularity, in 1988 and 1989, over 160 million square feet of suburban office space came online. Compare that to 2011 and 2012, where a little over 12 million square feet were built. James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, explained to the WSJ, that employers were attracted to the parks because they were like "a sea of asphalt to get people into their little cubicles and have them do routine office work." Sounds miserable.

Fortunately for cubicle-bound suburban office workers, the popularity of denser commercial space near public transit has increased, partially because of government support. And those old asphalt oceans are getting a new look. From the WSJ:

The most recent example is in Bridgewater, N.J., where a 1.2 million-square-foot office and research park once occupied by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi was purchased in April by a developer who wants to create a hotel, retail, restaurants and potentially apartment buildings. A similar plan is under way in the Richmond, Va., suburbs, where an area with 8 million square feet of 1980s-era offices could be transformed by taller buildings with multiple uses.

Gawker sarcastically laments the trend, writing about the WSJ article in a post entitled "You Will Never Be Able to Escape Your Suburban Office Park." Hamilton Nolan writes:

I’m no "certified city planner," but common sense tells you that the thing to do with empty suburban office parks is to raze them to the ground, napalm the surrounding several square miles, and allow the area to return to nature, praying that the entire suburban office park era will one day be forgotten by future generations who care nothing for the historical mistakes of their ancestors.

Suburban office parks today are depressing and life-sucking places to spend eight hours a day. But turning them into mixed-use developments is exactly what people should be doing. These developments make the suburbs more livable and ensure that residents don’t have to travel all over the place to do the things they want—eat, shop, go to a movie, etc.

We’ll find out soon whether people will actually want to hang out in former office parks. They may just bring back too many bad memories.

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