Trying to revive “obsolete” suburban office parks

Declining interest in space in suburban office parks means a number of people are looking for ways to use that same space:

A report from the real-estate-service firm NGKF released late last year provides new numbers on an ongoing phenomenon: the slow, agonizing death of the American office park. The report looks at five far-flung office-tenancy submarkets—Santa Clara, in the San Francisco Bay Area; Denver; the O’Hare area of Chicago; Reston and Herndon, outside of Washington, D.C.; and Parsippany, New Jersey—and finds a general aura of decline.

Between 14 and 22 percent of the suburban-office inventory in these areas is, the report found, “in some stage of obsolescence,” suggesting that between 600 million and 1 billion square feet of office space are unnecessary for the modern company and worker. That’s about 7.5 percent of the country’s entire office inventory…

There are models that developers are using to transform older office parks throughout the country, to measured success. They mostly involve turning definitely-suburban office parks into urban-like, albeit still isolated, office “cities.” (It is worth noting that many of these projects involve extensive rezoning efforts.) A facility in the community of Edina, Minnesota, is in the midst of transforming from a sprawling office center into what one local developer called “not your father’s or mother’s office park.” In practice, that means linking the park to 15 miles of bike trails, big-box-store-free retail, and green space. Other developers managing struggling office parks are considering adding farmers’ markets, hotels, and housing.

Such efforts have been going on for a while now whether from New Urbanists trying to introduce mixed uses (office parks are notoriously empty for much of the day outside of business hours) or edge cities trying to diversify their portfolio of uses and revenues (see an example like Tysons Corner). Of course, such efforts require funds and demand for the new or renovated space and it can often be easier for developers and investors to move on to new hot locations or construct all new buildings and properties.

One other idea for these office parks: why not seriously look at converting them into housing? A good amount of the infrastructure would already be present – major roads, utilities, parking lots – and many metropolitan regions are in desperate need of more housing units (particularly affordable ones). Many of these office parks are located in existing job centers so the housing would be convenient for a number of workers. I don’t know what it would cost to renovate office space to residential space but it would be interesting to see some proposals.

Designing “porous cities” for regular interactions by all people

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes a heterogeneous marketplace in India and wonders why more urban spaces can’t have a broad mix of people:

Nehru Place is every urbanist’s dream: intense, mixed, complex. If it’s the sort of place we want to make, it’s not the sort of space most cities are building. Instead, the dominant forms of urban growth are mono-functional, like shopping centres where you are welcome to shop but there’s no place to pray. These sorts of places tend to be isolated in space, as in the offices “campuses” built on the edge of cities, or towers in a city’s centre which, as in London’s current crop of architectural monsters, are sealed off at the base from their surroundings. It’s not just evil developers who want things this way: according to Setha Low, the most popular form of residential housing, world-wide, is the gated community.

Is it worth trying to turn the dream of the porous city into a pervasive reality? I wondered in Nehru Place about the social side of this question, since Indian cities have been swept from time to time by waves of ethnic and religious violence. Could porous places tamp down that threat, by mixing people together in everyday activities? Evidence from western cities answers both yes and no…

If the public comes to demand it, urbanists can easily design a porous city on the model of Nehru Place; indeed, many of the architects and planners at the Urban Age events now unfolding in London have made proposals to “porosify” the city. Like Nehru Place, these larger visions entail opening up and blurring the edges of spaces so that people are drawn in rather than repulsed; they emphasise true mixed use of public and private functions, schools and clinics amid Tesco or Pret; they explore the making of loose-fit spaces which can shift in shape as people’s lives change.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. These thoughts sound similar to what sociologist Elijah Anderson was getting at in The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Anderson asked of American cities: what happens in the rare public spaces where people of different class, race, and ethnic backgrounds regularly mix? Sennett has asked this of international contexts which have their own unique mixes of people.
  2. Key to the mixing of people may be the presence of “normal” commercial activity. Anderson observed a shopping mall in central Philadelphia; Sennett references an electronics market in India. Prices have to be low enough for everyone to have access and there needs to be a range of mixed use activity with some nearby places to work, shop, and eat.
  3. It strikes me that exclusivity is something imposed by the upper classes. One function of higher priced stores is that it tends to keep certain people out. Gated communities, cited by Sennett, are a function of class. As people acquire more wealth, they tend to design or buy into settings where people below them are minimized or removed. Thus, having more porous cities or spaces within cities would likely require significant changes from those with more power and wealth.

Potential solutions to fixing high streets in England

While Americans have worried about Main Streets for decades, a similar concern has arisen in England about their high streets. A recent panel, including sociologist Richard Sennett, proposed some solutions – of which one journalist was quite skeptical:

In Tuesday’s Guardian, a panel comprising a politician, an academic, a policy wonk and two campaigners offered the high street a range of solutions. The politician, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, said almost nothing at all: “Shopping can become an experience where conventional retailers can complement the success of online retailing.” Sociologist Richard Sennett favoured a mixture of pop-up art venues and pop-in medical centres and government bureaux: “A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop.” Others wanted cheaper rates to attract young entrepreneurs and, in the words of Anna Minton, “a new genuinely productive economy based on making, caring and exchanging goods and services”.

A lot is to be hoped for. None of it seems likely. A new ironmonger’s in a prosperous north London high street is one thing, but think of the dead shopping streets in almost any old industrial town: what a fusillade of pop-ups would be needed there! The future of these streets is surely the fate of the village I grew up in, where every shop but two was demolished or became the ground floor of a dwelling. It would be hard now to imagine that commerce (“That’s a penny for your liquorice and tuppence for your sherbet”) ever existed in these TV-lit rooms.

This is a pessimistic take and doesn’t really engage with what the panel said. Here is what Richard Sennett said:

The high streets of 50 years ago were all about retail commerce. Small manufacturers and craftsmen had gone elsewhere in the post-war city; planners – those bureaucratic bogeymen – thought to make the centre of the city tidy. But the high street inevitably then became vulnerable to an even more efficient, mono-functional retail space, the shopping mall. High streets “fought back” by imitating these out-of-town competitors; Oxford Street became a poor cousin to Bluewater. Of course the law of the capitalist jungle ruled: chains like HMV paid bigger rents than little shops, but the character and environmental quality of the central city eroded.

I am convinced we can reverse this trend, first by making high streets more truly mixed in use. They should house elder-care centres and medical clinics, government bureaus helping the public and pop-up music or art venues. A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop. But, equally, the capitalistic beast must be fed. Horrific to our Conservative masters as it may be, the state should pay commercial rents to locate its own activities on high streets, and it should give small businesses tax breaks, even special loans, to allow them to return and survive as high street enterprises.

If we think of high streets as a “commons”, which like the old agricultural commons knit the entire community together, we’d think about them as places, in sum, which the community should support. Which means subsidy.

Sennett’s ideas sound like a mix of New Urbanism, Jane Jacobs, and plans in many American communities where civic buildings and residential units were located in downtowns to try to boost foot traffic and help bring about a 24/7 culture rather than a 9-5 culture. And why can’t there be a little art to try to bring in “the creative class” and others? But, even if Sennett’s plan is generally good for communities, it is likely to be a little (or a lot) different in each unique place which faces different current conditions, different histories, and different visions for the future.