An empty suburban parking lot

In a recent drive through a consequential suburban office park (see more here), I saw this:

abandonedparkinglot.jpg

I found the scene surprising and interesting for several reasons:

  1. This suburb prides itself on its number of white-collar office and tech jobs. A parking lot that looks like this does not fit with this image. The lot is out of the way so it is not going to attract much attention.
  2. This parking lot was on the edge of the property which included other parking lots – with some cars – and a large office building where it looks like there is plenty of activity. Perhaps the building does not have as many workers as it once did, hence the empty parking lot.
  3. Might this have to do with parking space guidelines drawn up by communities? Suburban communities can require a lot of parking for shopping malls, big box stores, and other facilities.
  4. If the parking lot has not been used for a while, I wonder at what point it is worth tearing it up. Might the property need the parking at some point? Would the space be better used as green space? This is likely not like urban parking lots where someone might hold onto the lot until property values skyrocket.

 

A test of taking Lyft from the train to the suburban office park exposes mass transit issues in the suburbs

One company in the Chicago suburbs is running a test to encourage employees to take the train to get close to their office and then use Lyft to complete the trip:

The two-year program aims to solve the “last mile” problem — how to bridge the gap between the train station or bus stop and the rider’s final destination. This problem is especially nettlesome for reverse commuters, who live in the city but work in the suburbs at jobs that are sometimes far from transit stops. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the RTA…

GlenStar Properties is paying 75 percent of the cost of transporting employees at its Bannockburn complex on Waukegan Road to and from Metra stops in Deerfield, Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. The Regional Transportation Authority is picking up the rest of the cost, up to $30,000 during the pilot…

The program, which launched in March and is the first of its type in Illinois, is starting small with just a few trips a day, according to the RTA. Bannockburn Lakes tenants get a monthly Lyft pass for the rides.

Many suburban companies, including Walgreens and Allstate, have some kind of shuttle bus program to get workers to and from Metra stations, said Michael Walczak, executive director of the Transportation Management Association of Lake-Cook, a nonprofit that works with companies and the private sector to figure out transit issues.

This is an interesting way to solve a common problem in both cities and suburbs: how to get people and goods that last step (or “last mile”) between a mass transit stop and their destination. Even in cities with good mass transit, the last step can cause a lot of problems.

This strikes me as the pragmatic solution to the larger problem of limited mass transit in the suburbs. The Chicago train system runs on the hub and spokes model where suburban communities, typically their downtowns, are connected to the Loop. This system may help funnel people into the center of Chicago but it is both difficult to get around the region and the train lines run into historic town centers, not necessarily the work and residential centers of today. Ride-sharing can help make up the difference by connecting train stops to workplaces. This can limit long-distance solo trips by car and allow more workers to not have a vehicle or to drive significantly less.

On the other hand, this solution could be viewed as less-than-ideal reaction to the real issue: sprawling suburban sites do not lend themselves to mass transit and the ride-sharing solution is just a band-aid to a much bigger issue. Chicago area suburbs have tried versions of this for decades including public bus systems in the suburbs to connect office parks to train stations, buses from remote parking lots to train stations, and private companies operating shuttle buses (as noted above). This all may work just for a limited number of workers who are located near rail lines and who are willing to use mass transit. But, most suburban workers – and they tend to work in other suburbs – have no chance of using timely and convenient mass transit to get to work. The densities just do not support this (and the office park in the story illustrates that this may be more feasible with denser concentrations of workers).

If companies, communities, and regional actors truly wanted to address these issues in the Chicago region, a more comprehensive plan is needed to nudge people closer together to both take advantage of existing mass transit and develop new options.

Whether tech companies and their workers actually do better in and prefer cities

A recent Chicago Tribune article echoed a theme I have now seen numerous times: companies must have downtown campuses to compete for tech workers.

To lure data scientists and other tech workers, companies in industries from fast food to insurance have opened outposts in the heart of the city, where tech employees want to work. Having hip, downtown spaces has proved worth the extra cost to suburban companies, even as rents have increased…

When suburban companies first started catching on to millennials’ desire to live and work in the city, managers had a new culture to learn, Reaumond said. Employees in the downtown innovation hubs didn’t want to be chained to desks 10 hours a day…

Tech-focused downtown spaces feel different than their suburban counterparts, and that’s how it should be, Arity President Gary Hallgren said. Allstate’s Northbrook campus has a barber, a pharmacy and a doctor, but the Merchandise Mart space isn’t trying to be a campus, Hallgren said. Its goals and culture are different, and the space is too. Arity’s office has a pingpong table and the same fizzy water dispenser featured in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” It hosts meetups that draw tech workers from outside the company.

The underlying premise in these articles is that tech workers prefer to be in urban settings. However, I do not believe I have seen much data that measures this claim. When Americans as a whole are asked where they prefer to live, they tend to say either small towns or suburbs.

If tech workers do tend to prefer urban settings, is this due to the work itself actually going better in cities (higher productivity, more innovation, more efficiency, etc.) or other factors? For example, these stories often do not distinguish between the work activities of these firms and the age (younger) and generation (millennials) of the featured tech workers. Will the tech workers of today be the suburban parents of ten years from now? There is evidence that cities are innovation centers (see the scaling effects of patent production chronicled in Geoffrey West’s Scale) yet tech innovation is possible in the suburban office park (see the Route 128 area outside Boston, Silicon Valley around San Jose, and Bell Labs research centers in suburbia after World War Two).

And while this is often pitted as an either/or issue – tech firms must be in the big cities or must be elsewhere – I suspect there could be some benefits to each as well as some mixing of locations.

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.