How many suburbs will be willing to replace suburban office parks with denser housing?

If the golden age of the suburban office park has passed, what will some of the empty properties be used for? One option is denser housing:

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It will mean taking land long zoned for offices, and allowing townhomes to be built among them, or permitting apartments or industrial-scale warehouses for the first time. Amid a nationwide housing crisis, many obsolete office parks could be ideal sites for denser housing.

However, this is a very pertinent issue:

The problem for some suburban officials: “It’ll be, ‘Oh, what do you mean we can’t just zone for single-family homes and offices? That’s our thing. That’s why we exist,’” said Tracy Hadden Loh, a researcher at the Brookings Institution. “So now it’s like an existential crisis.”

This is an issue that comes up for numerous kinds of large suburban properties, whether they are shopping malls, golf courses, or grocery stores: how to convert a vacant property into a useful long-term use? The number one goal is probably to generate significant property tax and sales tax revenue. In other words, to keep it at its original as approved by the community years before.

But, if that is not possible – and communities might go years trying to fulfill this vision – then the discussions get interesting. Expensive single-family homes, fitting with the upscale suburban character of some suburbs, would fit in. Zoning protects single-family homes for a reason: suburbanites and suburban communities prefer these homes and their lifestyle.

However, single-family homes can bring more children to local schools and add to the loads of local services. They do not necessarily produce the revenues that offices and retail do. Denser housing is even less desirable because it adds even more residents, which can add to community services and traffic, and some suburbanites are concerned with apartment dwellers.

My guess is that mixed-use redevelopment will be a popular path a number of these communities will try to pursue. Replace that office park with a “metroburb.” But, it remains to be seen how many such developments are viable and how eager suburban leaders and residents are to pursue them.

Sears in decline leads to another large available suburban office campus

Sears recently closed its last department store in Illinois and just announced that their large suburban campus will soon be up for sale:

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The Hoffman Estates campus features a 2.3 million-square-foot corporate office and 273 acres, including 100 acres of undeveloped land. It was home to more than 4,000 Sears employees as recently as 2017, according to company filings…

When Sears Tower opened in 1973, it was the world’s tallest building, a fitting corporate home for the nation’s largest retailer. Sears left its namesake home in 1992, moving its corporate headquarters to Hoffman Estates and selling the tower two years later. In 2009, the name of the building was changed to Willis Tower as part of the deal for the London-based insurance firm to lease office space there.

Sears is not the only corporate mainstay to pull up stakes recently and put its suburban campus on the market.

Last month, insurance giant Allstate reached an agreement to sell its longtime headquarters in unincorporated Northbrook for $232 million to an industrial developer that plans to turn the 232-acre corporate campus into a massive logistics facility.

And what will happen to these properties? There are multiple options including:

  1. Staying as office or corporate space. Could there be another company or organization who would want this property? A suburb can spend a long time looking for a comparable replacement.
  2. Redevelop the land as a mixed-use development. See “The Metroburb” not too far way created from a former Bell Labs facility. This is a trendy approach that mixes commercial or office uses with residences.
  3. Convert the property to housing. There is demand for new housing in attractive suburbs and large tracts of land do not come open often.

Making this choice will require negotiation and conversation between the parent company of Sears, potential buyers, municipal leaders, residents, and others (which could include regional officials and actors in the real estate world). The whole process could take years and the outcome might retain some hint of the Sears headquarters or it might not.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: from urban corner stores to suburban corporate headquarters back to cities

Where exactly did Flamin’ Hot Cheetos come from? According to Frito-Lay, the impetus for the popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came from Northern cities and Plano, Texas:

Flamin’ Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence…

Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit. One of the earliest newspaper articles about the product corroborates that detail: A Frito-Lay spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in March 1992 that “our sales group in the northern United States asked for them.”…

Over the next few months, Greenfeld went on market tours of small stores in Chicago, Detroit and Houston to get a better feel for what consumers craved. She worked with Frito-Lay’s packaging and product design teams to come up with the right flavor mix and branding for the bags. She went with a chubby devil holding, a Cheeto, Frito or chip on a pitchfork, depending on the bag’s contents, she recalls, a memory independently corroborated by newspaper archives…

“In response, Frito-Lay launched a test market of spicy Lay’s, Cheetos, Fritos and Bakenets in Chicago, Detroit and Houston” beginning in August 1990, the company wrote in a statement.

The article focuses more on the controversy of exactly how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came about but I think the geography is pretty fascinating. Here is why I think the geography matters:

  1. The impetus were existing products in urban stores. Even as more Americans lived in the suburbs than cities by the 1980s, a large company like Frito-Lay cannot ignore consumers in the city.
  2. The product was developed in the Dallas suburbs. Plano is a notable suburb because of its growth and wealth (and McMansions). But, there are plenty of suburban office parks where ideas are discussed. Who knew the snacking fate of America was decided in a relatively anonymous suburban facility by business professionals? (And how many other products have a similar story?) Across the street is Toyota American Headquarters and then each direction on major roads leads to strip malls, fast food, and highways.
  3. The product was tested in cities and the idea developed in the suburbs took flight. Now, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are widely available (though it would be interesting to see the sales breakdown by geography).

Modern capitalism was able to span these disparate locations and churn out a product loved by many. From a suburban office park to snack aisles everywhere…

Considering Jane Jacobs’ advice for parks when planning a major suburban park

Jane Jacobs is famous for her observations regarding sidewalks in the opening chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Right after this is a chapter on parks. In summary, she suggests are not automatically good as they can easily become problem areas if there is not regular foot traffic in and through the park.

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I thought of this when seeing a plan of how the former Motorola Campus in Schaumburg might be turned into “a Millennium Park for suburbs”:

Schaumburg trustees Tuesday will consider approving a $1.1 million bid for construction of the first phase of a 12-acre, urban-style park ultimately envisioned as a sort of Millennium Park for the suburbs.

Planned for the former Motorola Solutions campus, the park when completed could house such amenities as a large outdoor performance venue, a sculpture garden, a dog park and a winter ice rink.

Phase one, however, will focus on the basic outline of the park and providing passive recreation opportunities to serve residents of the area, before the next set of upgrades are budgeted and built.

A suburban park, no matter how beautiful it is or how many amenities it has, could easily fall prey to the issues that Jane Jacobs describes. Do people live around the park? Will there be people regularly walking through the park? Will it have the same kind of lively pedestrian activity and interaction that she recommends for sidewalks?

A park built on a former office park campus might not have any of these. Located in a sprawling suburb, would the majority of users have to drive here? Would people be there just for the park and its particular amenities or are there nearby activities that would keep them in the area such as shops or restaurants? Are there enough residents within walking distance who can informally help keep an eye on the park and those who use it?

This could all be in the eventual plans. In the Chicago suburbs it is currently popular to suggest mixed-use developments to replace office parks, shopping malls, and other large properties. But, it takes time for such developments to happen and for community to arise. Parks do not automatically work like they do in Simcity where placing a park next to commercial or residential property boosts property values. Just because there is a pristine park in the plans does not mean that the park becomes the kind of asset Jacobs suggests they can be in the right conditions.

Starchitect Jahn’s buildings in the Chicago suburbs

World famous architect Helmut Jahn died over the weekend. He built iconic buildings in major global cities and several notable buildings in the western suburbs of Chicago.

A native of Germany, Jahn won international recognition and awards for projects around the globe, including United Airlines Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport, the former Citigroup Center (the main entrance to the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center) in Chicago, and the Sony Center in Berlin.

Besides MetroWest in Naperville, his suburban work includes the Oakbrook Terrace Tower in Oakbrook Terrace.

Here are images of the two buildings referenced:

Both buildings are interesting structures to see in their suburban settings. They would not be out of place in a major city. They are full of steel and glass. They have sharp angles. They can be seen from a distance and are of a height beyond most suburban buildings.

But, they also stick out. They are right next to major highways. They are not surrounded by other tall buildings; the size of the Oakbrook Terrace Tower is particularly notable. Instead, they are surrounded by parking lots and smaller suburban office parks. They are in the suburbs but they are not of the suburbs; few residents would want these structures anywhere near their single-family homes.

In other words, a starchitect can build in the suburbs. In many parts of the United States, they are growing and a majority of Americans live in suburban settings. Interesting buildings help add to the status of certain suburbs as job centers. Yet, the interesting buildings by a famous architect can only go so far in sprawling settings: they do not really fit in even as they provide something different to view at 70 miles per hour.