How suburbs can lose millions in revenue when office parks sit empty

The changes to offices in one Minneapolis suburb illustrate the money at stake for suburban communities:

One surprising victim might be the Twin Cities suburbs. Take the 64,000-person suburb of Eagan, Minnesota where, earlier this year, two announcements upended the commercial landscape. Two of the city’s largest employers terminated leases at massive office parks, both of which served as local corporate headquarters…

Because commercial property is taxed at a higher rate than residential, for a city like Eagan, with a $42 million budget, the loss of two large corporate headquarters is a hit to its bottom line. In 2022, the two office parks provided about $3 million in tax dollars to the city, county and school board. (The city of Eagan’s cut of the tax revenue sits at around a third of that total.) 

Whatever happens to these two sites, they’ll likely be assessed at much lower values moving forward, likely swaying the rest of the suburban commercial real estate market. This puts pressure on Eagan’s single-family residential property to make up the difference, shifting the low-tax balance that draws people to live second-ring suburbs in the first place.

For their part, Eagan city leaders say these kinds of economic changes are nothing new, and the city is well-positioned to survive…

She cited the changing loss of previous corporate headquarters in the city, including Lockheed Martin and Northwest Airlines, both of which disappeared due to mergers or outsourcing.

Multiple forces are at work:

  1. Corporate offices change over time, before and after COVID-19. This suburb has seen companies go before and they found different businesses to lease office space.
  2. It is less clear the direction of the current office space market and financial markets are nervous. With more work from home and more Internet business, how much physical office space is necessary in the coming years?
  3. Filled office parks can help suburbs generate significant revenues and reduce tax burdens for others. Vacant buildings do not this at the same rate.
  4. Buildings that are vacant long-term are negative symbols. Communities want to have thriving businesses, not empty buildings. The longer the vacancy stretches, the bigger the consequences.
  5. Communities can redevelop such properties but this requires money, proactive local officials, and partners.

If we could come back to Eagan in a decade or two, will these properties be redeveloped mixed-use properties, vacant sites, or office parks operating at a decent capacity?

Suburbanites who dread the “pop pop pop” of pickleball

Some suburban residents who live next to pickleball courts have concerns about the noise:

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While the noise isn’t as much of an issue with indoor courts and outdoor courts away from residential neighborhoods, it’s become a nuisance for folks like Matulyauskas, who lives within yards of a converted tennis court at Abbeywood Park in Lisle…

There are websites and online forums dedicated to pickleball noise, and decibel meters are keeping tabs on “pop pop pop” levels from coast to coast.

Legal action to stop the noise is ongoing in communities from Arlington, Virginia, to Phoenix, Arizona…

In response, the park district installed Acoustifence soundproofing panels to mitigate the sound…

The Naperville Park District is investing more than $500,000 in new pickleball courts at the Frontier Sports Complex. To deaden the noise, officials there also installed natural buffers such as vegetation, berms and fencing.

The pickleball craze continues…and attracts detractors.

Suburbanites often express concerns about noise regarding nearby land uses or proposed development. This can range from traffic noise to school noise to loud music to firework use during what they think should be quieter hours. The assumption is that life among single-family homes is supposed to be quiet.

Generally, suburbanites would see parks as amenities. They provide green space and recreational options. But, perhaps many would not want to live right next to one? Being near a park could include noise from playgrounds, ball games, pools, mowers, and more. The communities discussed above tried different options, like sound-dampening surfaces or particular hours for play.

As another park noise example, I was surprised not only to see a new basketball court recently but also to note how close the court was to nearby homes. The sound of bouncing basketballs can reverberate on exterior surfaces, plus whatever additional noise is generated by people playing.

Maryland and Virginia suburbs competing for new FBI headquarters

Which DC suburb will be home to the new FBI headquarters? The competition is heating up:

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The process of selecting a site for a gleaming, modern, suburban campus–style headquarters—one that could host roughly 8,000 FBI employees—began in President Obama’s first term. There was a four-year interruption during the Trump administration, but then the plan got back on track. With a final decision looming, elbows have gotten a lot sharper and complaints a lot louder.

To many of the aides and politicians involved, the end can’t come soon enough. It’s gotten bitter. The Virginians cite the “raw application of power” by Hoyer and others as the source of the bad feelings. The Marylanders argue that the bad vibes come from the FBI, which they claim has shown favoritism toward Virginia. All Maryland’s delegation is trying to do, they argue, is even the playing field.

The process has also activated deep-seated frustrations from Marylanders about why northern Virginia, which has boomed with corporate relocations and a government-contract explosion in recent decades, gets to have it all, while Prince George’s County—which, they hasten to note, is a majority-Black suburban county in Maryland—seemingly goes overlooked. The Virginians vent that Maryland is desperate and doing whatever it can to work the refs.

What both delegations agree on is that this is a once-in-a-generation contract that could serve as a 50-year anchor for either community, potentially bringing tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the winner. There are political legacies at stake here. Plus, there’s the CIA angle, which no one can talk about.

In many ways, this sounds like a typical competition between suburbs for a corporate headquarters or a sizable new development. On the line are jobs, status, new buildings, and potentially new residents and businesses who will want to locate nearby.

But, this is also different. The government makes this decision, not a private company. The buildings, jobs, and status may have more staying power because it is backed by the federal government.

When a decision is made, it will be interesting to hear the explanation from the FBI and the federal government on how they made the choice. Are there roughly equal options and a choice had to be made? Or, does the FBI have specific priorities when choosing a suburban community?

Suburbanites like local government…but do not like voting in local elections?

One reason Americans like suburbs is that they are closer to local government, meaning they have more say in local matters and more access to local officials. They feel can make their voice and tax dollars heard.

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Yet, when given the option in the Chicago suburbs to elect local officials, not many people do. In recent years, local turnout has been under 20% in some elections (earlier posts here and here). There are likely lots of reasons for this.

However, the local control suburbanites like – the ability to influence what happens around their property, the oversight of local schools, pursuing community issues they care about, where their tax money goes – depends on community members voting. How do people get into office? By votes. How are people appointed to boards and commissions? Often by those voted into office. Who decides how to spend local tax dollars? Local officials. And so on.

There is still lots of time to vote today. There are plenty of candidates running in the Chicago region. There is a lot of information available about their platforms and goals. May voters turn out and contribute to the local government and control they say they value.

Radio interview on Illinois history, race, and property on “The 21st Show” on Illinois Public Media yesterday

On Monday, March 27, I contributed to a conversation on “The 21st Show” titled “Illinois’ history with slavery and its links to the present.” You can listen here and I first talk at the 39:55 mark.

Photo by Jean Balzan on

Some of the conversation is based on a co-authored research article in progress with Caroline Kisiel of DePaul University. We discuss the working out and legacy of race and property over 300 years of Illinois history. My previous work in looking at the development of several suburbs in western DuPage County – earlier work published here, here, and here – adds to the latter portion of this history as race and ethnicity influenced decisions about development, zoning, and who was welcome in different communities.

Who wants to fight “a holy war on sprawl”?

Multiple states are proposing ways to circumvent local control regarding land, zoning, and housing:

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In New York, the governor wants the state to mandate housing production from local governments and to take over control of their land use if they fail to meet the targets. In California, a bill introduced to the state Assembly on Thursday would require approval of multifamily housing developments in walkable, transit-accessible and centrally located areas.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Legislature passed a package of bills that would require cities to set housing development goals and appropriate $200 million for affordable housing development. Earlier this month, the Washington state Legislature approved a bill legalizing accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny flats,” like an apartment made from a garage or basement. And the Washington state House of Representatives passed a bill last Tuesday that would allow multifamily housing units to be built anywhere in larger cities and near bus stops in smaller towns.

The trend is not just happening in blue states. Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has proposed legalizing duplexes and triplexes all across the state and legalizing apartment buildings in all commercial areas. And the Oregon and Washington measures have drawn broad bipartisan support.

What does this add up to?

“We’re basically declaring a holy war on sprawl,” Matthew Lewis, communications director of California YIMBY, a pro-housing advocacy group that is backing the bill, told Yahoo News.

Such a declaration is unlikely to ease the minds of conservatives who fear efforts to limit local and individual control or increase density.

Is it possible to discuss sprawl and its effects in a civil manner? I suspect this is hard to do. It invokes passion on multiple sides. Is sprawl about having a piece of private land and achieving the American Dream? Is it a waste of resources and destroyer of natural ecosystems? Is it a unique feature of American life to accommodate single-family homes and cars?

As the article hints, there are likely long fights over such efforts. Where exactly is the line between local control and the broader interest of the public? Particularly in communities with money and political voice, the fight may drag on.

Trying to organize food co-ops in the suburbs when local farms and food producers have dwindled

One suburban food co-op is hoping to launch later this year in central DuPage County. Where do they get their food from?

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Prairie Food will focus on local, organic and sustainably produced food. The co-op has cultivated relationships with Walnut Acres Family Farm in Wilmette, Rustic Road Farm in Elburn, Jake’s Country Meats in southwest Michigan and “quite a few dairy farms,” Kathy Nash said…

Co-op organizers say the model — local control, local ownership — has become especially relevant after the pandemic brought on food supply issues…

Food co-ops clearly define what “local” means. The Food Shed’s goal is to source 25% of all of the store products within a 100-mile radius. The McHenry County co-op purchased land on Route 14 and Lakeshore Drive to build from the ground up. The shopping space will cover around 7,000 square feet…

The Food Shed started from a desire to connect with local farmers and “tap into the local economy,” Jensen said. The co-op was officially incorporated in 2014.

If the comparison is between a 3,000 mile salad where the ingredients come from a long ways away or having food from within 100 miles or a few hours drive, then the co-op is definitely pursuing local food.

At the same time, the desire to buy local food is made more difficult in suburban settings where development has gobbled up land for decades. Looking back at some research notes I had, I found these facts about local farms:

-The amount of land in DuPage County devoted to farming dwindled toward the end of the twentieth century – down to 11% of the county’s land in 1987 and 95 farms in 1992 – according to the Chicago Tribune.

-Also in the Chicago Tribune, the last dairy farm in DuPage County closed in 1993 with the land sold to a developer. At one point, the county was known as “the milk shed for Chicago.”

-The last beef cows in Naperville left in 2005 with the sale of a farm to developers (also according to the Chicago Tribune).

So even as some suburbanites want local food, the developments and communities in which they live are at least partly responsible for pushing food production further away?

The fear that people will be trapped in 15 minute cities

Online actors are suggesting leaders want to limit people to living in 15 minute cities:

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“Never have there been proposals for restrictions — on the contrary, this is a new opportunity: more choice, more services, more desire to thrive in one’s neighbourhood,” he said.

“Since the start of 2023, the concept of the 15-minute city has been subject to conspiracy theories, produced and shared by people already well known for spreading disinformation about Covid, the climate, vaccines and politics,” he said…

Particular claims debunked by AFP Fact Check in recent weeks have targeted the English city of Oxford and Edmonton, Canada. Claims surfaced in various languages, including English, French and Portuguese.

“You can’t leave a 15-minute city whenever you please … The city walls or restrictions or zones or whatever you want to call them won’t be used to keep others out, they’ll be used to lock everyone in,” says one man in a video viewed more than 59,000 times on Facebook, commenting on the Edmonton plan…

Supporters of 15-minute cities include the worldwide C40 cities alliance plus the United Nations and the World Economic Forum -– targets of numerous false claims that are subject to frequent fact-checks.

Would these particular fears about denser communities fit under long-running fears that a globalist structure wants to restrict the everyday lives and freedoms of workers? One way to control people is to restrict geographic mobility. Doing so would increase population densities and limit what people could access.

These fears likely find a stronger foothold in the United States where frontier and suburban motifs are strong. Americans like suburbs, in part, because they are able to have private property, can drive where and when they choose, and have closer connections to local government. Denser areas do not appeal to many Americans.

Build it – the residential and commercial development around a suburban football stadium – and they will profit?

What if the new football stadium is less of a draw in the long run than the development right around the stadium? Here is one report about what has changed in Glendale, Arizona, home to today’s Super Bowl, where the stadium opened in 2006:

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Far out? The site of Sunday’s Super Bowl is about 13 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix. Arlington Heights is about 30 miles northwest of downtown Chicago.

The distance is less of an issue than it was when State Farm Stadium was built, said Kevin Phelps, Glendale’s city manager. Some projections show that two out of three newcomers to the Phoenix area will live in the West Valley…

The last time Glendale hosted a Super Bowl, it had about 800 hotel rooms near the stadium. By next year, that number will be 3,000. The city has found that most people spend money on dinner and shopping within two miles of their hotel. But a new development has to deliver.

“You have to have a ‘there’ there,” Phelps said. “I don’t care how good your advertising is. If we told everyone to come to Glendale and they got here and there was an ice cream shop and a Denny’s and that’s all there is, you’d never get them back again.”

Just having a superb stadium experience is not enough. The stadium can anchor a larger entertainment district where people come for a variety of events, enjoy food and other experiences, and are willing to spend a few nights or a long day. The real activity and money is in the year-round potential of the property that at the center has a recognizable stadium but also has enough to attract people when there is not a big game.

Still, the more important question is this: who benefits from the new development? Does the suburb of Glendale? Do its residents? Or, does this primarily enrich the team owners who see the value of their franchise increase?

The suburbs as the perfect places for drone deliveries

Where might drones make deliveries? One project in Texas suggests the suburbs make a lot of sense for such deliveries:

Photo by Darrel Und on

Flytrex, which specializes in on-demand, ultrafast delivery for food and retail, is bringing food and grocery orders via drone to front and backyards.

According to a release, the service will be based in Granbury, in a partnership with restaurant chain Brinker International, home of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and two virtual brands: It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Italian Classics.

The service is operating in cooperation with longtime partner Causey Aviation Unmanned under a newly granted Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver allowing a delivery radius of one nautical mile – reaching thousands of potential homes. Eligible households can order food via the Flytrex app.

Their focus is on the suburbs, where on-demand delivery has previously been viewed as commercially unviable, since traditional couriers can make only two deliveries per hour in such areas. They have a video showing a drone at work on YouTube.

Granbury is a small town of just over 11,000 residents roughly 30 miles southwest of Fort Worth and on the edge of the Dallas metropolitan area.

More broadly, it is interesting to note that the population densities of Granbury and the suburbs are what might make delivery by drone viable. Americans tend to like suburbs and driving. But, this is not as good for delivering food or other items. The same kind of space Americans like for their suburban homes does not work well with quick deliveries.

How many deliveries can drones make in an hour compared to vehicles? Are there also advantages to suburban deliveries from not having to encounter many tall buildings or obstacles?

If drones are better for suburban deliveries, are suburbanites open to drones flying above their homes to bring them things they have ordered? Suburbanites also like a connection to nature and drones may not provide that if they are flying or they can be heard above homes. The same drones that enable a consumer lifestyle do not necessarily fit with an image of quiet suburban properties.