Scrambling to fill empty suburban HQs

Chicago looks at development efforts involving several large suburban corporate campuses that lost their famous tenants to the big city:

For many of these suburbs, the solution isn’t to replace one corporate behemoth with another. Instead, they’re dicing up the land for different uses and radically changing the face of suburbia for decades to come — just as the mammoth corporate enclaves and shopping malls once did. In Oak Brook, for example, an unexpected entity pursued the 34 undeveloped acres at McDonald’s. “As soon as we found out they were leaving, we asked if they wanted to donate it,” says Laure Kosey, executive director of the Oak Brook Park District. “They said, ‘Good idea, but we’re going to put it up for sale.’ ”

So the park district bought it. Residents of Oak Brook, a village that levies no property tax, took the unusual step of taxing themselves by voting for a bond referendum that covers the $15.8 million price tag, with $2 million left over for creating soccer fields and spaces for other recreational activities. The deal closed in December with the promise that the land won’t turn into anything other than a park.

A separate McDonald’s property a few miles from the main campus, next to the Oakbrook Center mall, was sold to Houston-based developer Hines last summer. It will likely become a mix of apartment buildings, office space, and shops — what the developer has called a “new village center.” It’s a similar tack to the one Schaumburg is taking after it was rattled in 2016 by the loss of Motorola Solutions’ headquarters, which moved to the West Loop. Chicago-based UrbanStreet Group bought 225 of the site’s 322 acres and intends to remake the parcel into a mini community with houses and apartments, a retirement home, a driving range, a park, and sidewalk cafés…

Nearby Hoffman Estates has already lost one giant — AT&T, which began vacating its 150-acre satellite campus in 2014 for several smaller sites in Chicago and other suburbs — and doesn’t exactly have a sure thing in another: the hobbled Sears Holdings Corporation, which is fighting to stave off liquidation. New Jersey–based Somerset Development is turning the AT&T site into what it calls an indoor downtown, essentially a 21st-century Bio-Dome that packs offices, restaurants, entertainment spots, conference centers, and hotels under a massive roof. It’s possible a Montessori school, public library, and other communal spaces will be weaved into the site, just as the developer did in New Jersey, where it revamped the huge Bell Labs property…

State representative Fred Crespo, a Democrat from the village, is floating a so-called Big Empties bill, which is being redrafted after it was introduced during the last session of the General Assembly. It would provide hefty incentives, including relief on up to half of the property taxes, for developers that make over old HQs larger than one million square feet.

The redevelopment plans sound like they have promise. The goal is to reduce the ways that headquarters are often set apart from the surrounding land by reincorporating the properties into the fabric of the suburb as well as introduce a variety of uses that will generate more around-the-clock activity. Big office campuses and/or buildings can be impressive displays but they may not contribute much to local community and social life.

On the other hand, I wonder how to weigh these changes against the loss of status that can come with the move of major companies out of the community. Particularly for edge cities, suburbs with millions of square feet of retail and office space and often located near major highways (like Oak Brook, Schaumburg, and Hoffman Estates), a Fortune 500 company helps establish the suburb’s reputation. New mixed-use neighborhoods may be attractive but they don’t have the same oomph as saying the suburb is home to Sears or McDonald’s or Mondelez.

I, for one, will be very interested to see how this all plays out within twenty years. These properties offer unique opportunities for established wealthier suburbs to do something unique. However, the redevelopment plans could go awry or the what is constructed may not be that interesting or the suburb’s status may never quite recover.

Comprehending the office and retail space in an edge city

After explaining the concept of an edge city to my American Suburbanization class, a discussion arose about how much space these places really have. When defining the edge city, Joel Garreau had these as two criteria (out of five total): “has five million square feet or more of leasable office space” and “has 600,000 square feet or more of leasable retail space.” This is a lot of space, as much as a smaller big city, but can still be hard to understand.

For example, there is much more commercial and retail space in the exemplar of the edge city: Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Around 2007 Tysons Corner had 25,599,065 square feet (2,378,231.0 m2) of office space, 1,072,874 square feet (99,673.3 m2) of industrial/flex space, 4,054,096 square feet (376,637.8 m2) of retail space, and 2,551,579 square feet (237,049.4 m2) of hotel space. Therefore Tysons Corner has a grand total of 33,278,014 square feet (3,091,628.7 m2) of commercial space.

How do we put this in more manageable terms?

1. Garreau compares this suburban space to the office and retail space in existing cities. The 5 million square feet of office space “is more than downtown Memphis.” While we may have traditionally associated this much office and retail space only with the downtowns of big cities, now concentrations of this space can be found right in the middle of the suburbs. This is unusual because suburbs are often portrayed as bedroom suburbs, places like people live and sleep but have to work elsewhere.

2. Compare this space to large buildings. The Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago has 4.56 million square feet of space, 3.81 million rentable. So an edge city would have at least slightly more space this notable office building though perhaps it is difficult to visualize this space since it is a skyscraper and each floor seems smaller. An ever bigger building, The Pentagon, has 6.5 million square feet, more than the lower threshold for an edge city. Therefore, Tysons Corner has nearly 4 Pentagons of office space. Comparing this edge city space to shopping malls, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois (an edge city itself) has 2.7 million square feet while the Mall of America has a total of 4.2 million square feet.

3. We could measure edge cities in terms of square miles or acres and then compare to bigger cities. Square miles make some sense: Tysons Corner is 4.9 square miles while Memphis, a city Garreau says has downtown space similar to that of an edge city, is 302.3 square miles (on land). Acres are a little harder to interpret: a common suburban house lot is an eighth of an acre, a square mile has 640 acres (hence the dividing of the American frontier into 160 and 640 acre plots), and an acre has roughly 43,500 square feet. Then, an edge city with 5 million square feet of office space has about 115 acres of office space. Perhaps acres are best left to farmers.

In the end, I think Garreau made the right comparison to demonstrate the office and retail space within an edge city: we have some ideas about the size of downtowns of smaller big cities and the image of this amount of space existing in the suburbs is jarring.

Building the “aerotropolis”

An article in the Boston Globe discusses a recently-coined phenomenon: the aerotropolis. This refers to the conglomeration of businesses and other uses that now tend to gather around important international airports:

Dulles is no longer an airport but an aerotropolis, a term coined by a University of North Carolina business professor. An aerotropolis is a city of the 21st century, built around a runway in roughly the same way that historic cities grew up around water or rail lines, with a close-in network of businesses, an outer loop of service industries, and suburbs full of homes.

Aerotropolises have emerged in places like the former no man’s zone between Dallas and Fort Worth, in suburban Atlanta, and around Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, near Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. They provide what John D. Kasarda, the UNC professor, calls “connectivity” to the global marketplace. International companies want to locate where their executives can step out their doors and be on another continent eight hours later. Firms producing the highest-value goods want to ship them to markets around the world. (“The Web won’t move a box,” Kasarda declares. “High-end products move by air.”) And businesses with tentacles around the globe want a place where all their people can fly in easily for meetings.

The story goes on to discuss how this did not come about around Logan Airport in Boston, primarily because of space issues. If space is indeed an important concern, this may be tricky to navigate – a city wants an airport relatively close to businesses and travelers can easily get downtown but at the same time, perhaps airports should be located further out as airports themselves require a good amount of land and if the aerotropolis is the goal, this takes up even more space.

This new term also suggests that airports are more than just pieces of infrastructure or places where tourists come and go but rather are important nodes in urban business networks. But some other information might be helpful to better understand the aerotropolis: does the aerotropolis provide more or less benefits than businesses that gather around other modes of transportation (highways, rail lines, seaports)? How does the business generated around airports today compare to the business generated 20 years ago? Which industries in particular benefit from the aerotropolis? How much money do municipalities gain from the aerotropolis versus other land uses?

Translating this into some other terms in use, is this simply an edge city with an airport at its center?

h/t The Infrastructurist