Looking for 'city' living in the suburbs?
Some are finding it in aging office parks
From the rooftop terrace of their new town house, Keisuke and Idalia Yabe take in their suburban Maryland neighborhood — a staid, 1970s-era office park of glass office buildings and concrete parking garages.
The Yabes say they have found the advantages of urban living in a shorter commute and the ability to walk to shopping centers and a park. They also have what feels like the best of suburbia — mature trees, plentiful parking, Bethesda’s sought-after schools and a more affordable mortgage.
From the Washington, D.C., and New York suburbs to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, traditional corporate campuses that have struggled since the Great Recession are trying to transform from sterile worksites into vibrant mini-towns.
In addition to housing, they’re adding restaurants, grocery stores, playgrounds and outdoor concert spaces — anything to draw people in and make them want to stay.
Although it might sound strange at first, the Yabes say, living in an office park feels convenient and even a bit hip.
“The location is ideal,” said Keisuke Yabe, 45, after returning from an evening walk with their seven-month-old daughter, Mela, just as the sun ducked behind a 14-story office building.
“For me, if anything, it’s, ‘Oh, this is pretty cool,’ “ said Idalia Yabe, 38. “I think the office setting makes it seem like we’re in a city a bit more and not as much in the suburbs.”
For many suburban business centers, attracting residents such as the Yabes is a matter of survival.
Once an elite address for companies fleeing downtowns, suburban office parks have grown increasingly obsolete as businesses have scaled back on office space or returned to transit-rich cities to attract young professionals. Those reachable only by car or bus have been hit particularly hard. In Rock Spring Park, where the Yabes live, the office vacancy rate has hovered around 22 percent, compared with 15 percent across the rest of Montgomery County.
Montgomery officials were caught off guard in 2015 when Marriott International, one of the county’s largest private employers, announced it would be moving its headquarters out of Rock Spring Park because it needed a more urban, transit-friendly area to attract younger workers.
The company is building a new headquarters in downtown Bethesda, walkable to Metro and the planned light-rail Purple Line. When Marriott moves out, county planners say, Rock Spring’s vacancy rate could jump to 39 percent.
Meanwhile, experts say, suburban office parks have plenty to offer residential developers. Many are close to major roads and near top-ranked public schools, and their sprawling campuses and vast parking lots provide land that has become increasingly scarce in lucrative areas.
“On the surface, suburban office parks don’t immediately suggest residential,” said Stockton Williams, a housing expert for the Urban Land Institute. “But they can be transformed. ... It will take some creativity, but it’s certainly doable.”
Bob Geolas, a real estate economic development consultant in Raleigh, N.C., said suburban office parks can retool themselves for urban-loving companies and residents who are likely to want more space at more affordable prices as their staffs or families grow.
“We’re not going to tear down all those buildings, so how do you re-imagine them?” said Geolas, former chief executive of the Research Triangle Foundation, which manages 7,000-acre Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. “I think it’s a real opportunity for the suburbs to make a hip comeback.”
EYA, the company developing the Yabes’ Montgomery Row complex, embraced Rock Spring’s corporate address, said McLean Quinn, an EYA vice president. In addition to Marriott, the office park includes Lockheed Martin, National Institutes of Health facilities and dozens of doctors’ offices.
Quinn said EYA saw potential in the office park’s network of sidewalks, walkable location near Westfield Montgomery Mall and two shopping centers, and proximity to in-demand schools. He said the town houses are drawing younger families seeking a “move-up home” with more space than they could afford in the District of Columbia, as well as empty nesters downsizing from farther-out suburbs such as Potomac.
“It’s not directly on transit, but it’s very much a less suburban location than from where a lot of these folks are coming from,” he said. “For a lot of our folks, it’s very urban.”
The town houses range from about $750,000 to $1 million, although some are priced at below-market rates under county requirements for “moderately priced” housing. Of the 168 homes, 89 have sold, Quinn said.
In suburban New Jersey, developers are converting the former two-million-square-foot Bell Labs headquarters in the affluent township of Holmdel into new office space, stores and restaurants. Toll Brothers is building 40 single-family homes, averaging $1.7 million apiece, and 185 “active adult” town houses on former Bell Labs property near the massive office building.
Chris Gaffney, a group president for Toll Brothers, said people will want to live amid a 450-acre corporate campus for the same reasons they’ve always flocked to certain suburbs — convenience and nearby top-notch public schools.
“Like anything else in real estate, it’s all location,” Gaffney said. “The Garden State Parkway is right there, it’s a half-hour to the Jersey Shore, 50 minutes to Manhattan — it’s just an incredible location.”
Such large tracts of open land in high-demand suburbs, he said, “are few and far between.”
Suburban office park managers say they’re also trying to keep and attract office tenants who tell them they can’t recruit the best talent unless staffers can walk to restaurants, shopping and even to and from home.
For that reason, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park soon will get its first 600 apartments, along with restaurants, a grocer and other stores.
“Honestly, we are responding to how people want to live, work and play in the same area,” said Linda Hall, the Research Triangle Foundation’s chief financial officer. “There are literally no restaurants” in the park, Hall said.
In Northern Virginia, the 1,100-acre Westfields International Corporate Center at Dulles has 155 town houses — the first homes ever in the 1980s-era Chantilly office park — and a Wegmans grocery store under construction. Plans include two apartment buildings, recreational trails, a movie theater and an amphitheater for community events.
Bill Keech Jr., whose Keech Co. manages the office park, said he thinks plenty of the 26,000 people who work in Westfields will want to live there. New stores and restaurants, he said, also will help the auto-centric park, which is seven miles from the closest Metro station, compete for tenants against office buildings popping up around new Silver Line stations.
“When you look at creating a special place, it’s a change for us, too,” Keech said. “It’s like we’re reinventing a town.”
Of course, building a town, or even a new neighborhood, has its challenges. A big one: The new homes catering to young families didn’t exist — and often weren’t even imagined — when nearby schools were planned and built. In Bethesda, for example, the schools that serve Montgomery Row are among the most overcrowded in the county.
Another challenge is how to create a sense of “vibrancy” and “place” — the feeling of living and hanging out in a fashionable, interesting destination — in office parks that can feel downright sterile, especially for early residents who arrive before stores and restaurants.
For all its modern design and quasi-urban feel, Montgomery Row residents have plenty of reminders that they live where thousands of other people work.
On a recent weekday, office workers with ID badges slung around their necks strolled the sidewalks and took midmorning smoke breaks across the street.
By evening, the area was so deserted that the hum of industrial air conditioners could be heard amid the bird chirps.
Tom Pariser, 57, said the area is just what he and his wife were looking for when they wanted to downsize after their three grown children had moved out of their Alexandria, Va., house. He said they like being able to walk more and drive less. And his wife’s six-minute walking commute to her job in the office park sure beats the hours she used to slog through traffic.
Pariser said he expects the area will feel more residential soon, particularly once Marriott’s campus across the street is redeveloped, likely into offices, restaurants, shops and more homes.
“You don’t feel like you’re in deepest, darkest suburbia here,” Pariser said. “I think you’re looking at the beginning of a transformation. I think in 20 years, this area will look a lot different.”