Plopping a New Urbanist metroburb into the middle of sprawling suburbia

I recently discussed plans for a “metroburb” to replace a sizable AT&T office campus in Hoffman Estates. Reading more about the proposal, I wondered: does it really work to put a New Urbanist development right in the middle of suburbia?

Under Zucker’s plan, which would rename the former campus City Works, the four-level, 1.3 million-square-foot main building would house offices of varying sizes and shops. About 175 townhouses and 375 multifamily rental units would be constructed on the edges of the property. The estimated total cost is about $250 million. Unlike a typical suburban subdivision, the town homes would line straight streets and have alleys…

Zucker, 57, is a devotee of the New Urbanism, the urban planning movement that seeks to replace the car-oriented monotony of suburban sprawl with lively, mixed-use streetscapes that encourage walking and the formation of community.

Chicago suburbs like Arlington Heights have put New Urbanist thinking to use in greenlighting high-rise housing near train stations. That approach is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. Under Zucker’s plan, Hoffman Estates, which doesn’t have its own train station, would do a variation of transit-oriented development.

“Taking the TOD (elements) and putting them inside a building is really the novel part of this,” said Jim Norris, the suburb’s village manager.

While this may be a clever use of what is a large facility, the overall fit between the redevelopment and the surrounding area could be less than ideal. Here is why:

  1. They want to include transit-oriented development elements even though there is no mass transit nearby. Indeed, this office corridor owes much to roads and Interstate. This could represent an opportunity to push for mass transit to the area: rapid buses along major roads? light rail?
  2. It seems like much of the redevelopment is focused on orienting residents, customers, and workers to the original large facility. While this may be a good use of the existing space, how many people from outside of this development will come in? Will this just be a self-contained area?
  3. The new tissue intended to connect the redeveloped area – walkable streets, alleys, interesting places to go – may or may not connect with anything beyond this development. This happens sometimes with suburban New Urbanist developments; they look and feel great on the inside but then have little interaction with the terrain that surrounds them. In other words, it requires requires a car to get to these interesting New Urbanist areas.

In the long run, a redevelopment that has a more permeable edge as well as is situated in a community that truly wants more New Urbanist development overall rather than in just an isolated location could lead to better outcomes.

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.

Space, the earth’s suburban office park

Ian Bogost argues that space exploration has become dull, just like a suburban office park:

It’s not so much that the space program is broken in the sense of inoperative. Space is alive and well, for the wealthy at least, where it’s become like the air and the land and the sea: a substrate for commerce, for generating even more wealth. Instead, the space program is broken in the sense of tamed, domesticated, housebroken. It happens to all frontiers: they get settled. How many nights can one man dance the skies? Better to rent out laughter-silvered wings by the hour so you can focus on your asteroid mining startup.

In the 1960s we went to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. In the 1980s we went to low Earth orbit because, you know, somebody got a grant to study polymers in zero-gravity, or because a high-price pharmaceutical could be more readily synthesized, or because a communications satellite had to be deployed, or because a space telescope had to be repaired. The Space Shuttle program strove to make space exploration repeatable and predictable, and it succeeded. It turned space into an office park. Now the tenants are filing in. Space: Earth’s suburbs. Office space available.

I don’t think this is a new argument: others have argued we need a new vision for space travel that involves looking for new frontiers. But the comparison to the suburbs is intriguing. The suggestion is that suburbs are fairly dull places themselves generally populated by wealthier residents where stuff happens (indeed, a majority of Americans live there) but it is rather routine and is done more out of habit than pushing beyond existing boundaries. This is not an uncommon image of the suburbs and it dates back to the early days of mass produced suburbs when critics worried about conformity, homogeneity, and quiet desperation.

Yet, the suburbs have continued to grow and perhaps more interestingly, they have changed in a number of ways in recent decades: new groups have moved to the suburbs (including more immigrants, minorities, and lower-class Americans), a variety of suburbs have come to serve a variety of functions from bedroom communities to center for office and industrial parks to entertainment and cultural hubs, residents, developers, and business leaders have adapted to a changing landscape with some new innovations. Putting this back in space terms, even if we don’t get much further than the moon or Mars in the coming years, can’t we still discover new and important things? Can’t some good come out of just-out-of-Earth’s atmosphere office parks?

One note: I would be interested to hear from Bogost about how new space exploration could be financed. There could indeed be some issues if exploration is limited more and more to wealthy individuals and corporations but what governments have the money to pay for this out of public funds?

When a suburb doesn’t support the big tax break supported office park

An interesting story is brewing in Hoffman Estates where the State of Illinois wants to keep the Sears headquarters by continuing a major tax break but the local school district and some in the community don’t want to live with the reduced tax revenue for years to come. Central to the story: the tax break didn’t help fill up the 780 acre office park, leading to less tax revenue than expected even with Sears located there.

Instead, two decades after the special taxing area was created, some 200 acres remain undeveloped in the 780-acre park anchored by Sears Holdings Corp.’s headquarters. A swath of land that was supposed to generate $50 million in property taxes in 2012 raised only $25 million in the past tax year…

The ambitious project’s inception came at the pinnacle of “euphoria” over a booming commercial real estate market, said John McDonald, who teaches land economics and real estate at Roosevelt University. But that party ended with the economic slowdown of the early 1990s, and the market, he said, has not rebounded. There is no “desperate need for office space anywhere right now,” he said…

The inability of the park to pull in the predicted revenues underlies the battle over Sears’ future. The fight has largely centered on Community Unit School District 300, a financially strapped taxing body whose officials claimed it stood to lose more than $10 million in revenue per year under the original plan to extend the taxing area’s term.

The parties and legislators are continuing to discuss whether Sears would be required to keep some 4,000 of the roughly 6,100 jobs at its headquarters well into the future. The potential consequences should the company not meet that condition remain unclear, said Hoffman Estates Corporation Counsel Arthur Janura.

Typically, suburbs are thought to be in favor of these tax breaks as it helps lure new businesses to town. However, this situation is a cautionary tale about tax breaks: just because one is granted doesn’t necessarily mean that businesses will necessarily move in. If everyone is building big industrial or office parks and offering tax breaks, can everyone win? And in an era of falling tax revenue and rising costs, suburbs need to maximize their assets.

Of course, the State of Illinois will look really bad if Sears leaves as it will feed a (growing?) narrative that Illinois is generally bad for business. It will be fascinating to see how the State and Hoffman Estates come to some sort of agreement that everyone can live with.

An office park that successfully created a “culture of public transit”

A lot of people would want more Americans to consistently use public transit. But one writer suggests a San Ramon, California office park where “33 percent of the park’s 30,000 workers leave their cars at home” might hold some answers. Here is a look at how this office park’s transportation center tackles logistics, focus on the multiple benefits of using public transit, and has “evangelistic zeal”:

1. Logistics: the office park was built in 1978 and needed to competed with other office parks. The office park purchased a fleet of buses, found ways to subsidize costs, and coordinated bus schedules with other nearby mass transit options. Today: “There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.”

2. Pitching the multiple benefits of public transit: it’s not just about money but improving health and reducing stress. Today:

Marci says that once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they’ve lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. “Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we’d smell them,” she says, “There’s not much of that in our lives.” She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

3. The office, particularly its program manager, aggressively push the program and look to engage people in conversations.

Overall, this sounds interesting. But I am a bit skeptical about whether this is a possible solution to energy and transportation issues:

1. Even with all of this work, 67% of the workers still use their cars on a regular basis. (This is based on data the story provides.) Is this the best we can hope for outside of really dense urban areas like New York City? It really is difficult to fight a culture that prizes individuals being able to drive themselves.

2. There is no mention in this article about the cost of this program. It could be cheaper in the long run (if all the possible costs are accounted for) but I imagine some money might need to be spent up front for similar programs with the reduced costs coming down the road. The article suggests this program helped this office park compete – how much did it help?

3. Is this three-pronged strategy viable on a larger scale? Or does it only work under certain conditions?