Back to the Future

Hot off the presses is an issue paper published by the Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy entitled Reinventing the New Jersey Economy. http://policy.rutgers.edu/reports/rrr/RRR33dec12.pdf. The paper was written by James W. Hughes, Dean of the Bloustein School and Joseph J. Seneca, a Professor in the Bloustein School.

The report initially focuses on employment trends in New Jersey and compares the state’s employment results since 1950 to those of Manhattan. Hughes and Seneca go on to describe the history of the growth of suburban office space in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in 1990 when the 11-county Northern and Central New Jersey Office Market became the 5th largest in the United States. “Much of this product”, the professors write, “was located in the state’s freeway-oriented, auto-dependent, suburban growth corridors.”

This dynamic has shifted in the New Millenium according to Hughes and Seneca, “The fashionability of suburban-centric, auto-dependent office corridors may have run its course…Sterile, insular corporate communities are out. Exciting, interactive, multifunctional environments are in, as are such attributes as diversity, sustainability, and walkability…Consequently office ecosystems are changing. The cubicle forms inhabited by the baby boom of yesteryear may be yielding to the flexible collaborative spaces desired by the echo boom of today.”

These office parks were born of research-intensive industries such as pharmaceuticals, telecom and energy. And while the sectors are still important today, the type of research being done has evolved and the collaboration methodologies have followed the trail of the internet which has allowed a greater number of people to share a greater amount of information over a greater area. In essence, these large sprawling office parks have become dinosaurs and are, as Hughes and Seneca put it, ready to be reimagined.

While Hughes and Seneca ask good questions about the future of these white elephants, they do not suggest any answers. So, of course, I took it upon myself to do some reimagining.

“Self”, I said, “what are some alternative uses for these buildings?”

  • Continued use as office? Not particularly viable. When these buildings are actually rented (and this is no easy sell, as any broker will tell you) the lease rates do not justify the replacement cost – a clear indication that the Highest and Best Use has changed.
  • Residential? The idea of renovating existing office buildings into residential condominium units has been floated, and it may work in some instances, but it is hard to imagine anyone being attracted to living in a remote, utilitarian structure, surrounded by a sea of asphalt and facing a 60 minute round trip for a gallon of milk.
  • Hotel? Again, maybe in some very particular circumstances this type of conversion would make sense, but most of these buildings are in rural and rural-suburban neighborhoods. It is really unlikely that there is enough demand to renovate a 500,000 square foot building into a hotel, no matter how many chocolates are on the pillow.
  • Retail? A regional mall conversion is possible, but this market is pretty saturated and existing malls are in more populated areas. The locals would also probably object to the traffic, among other things.
  • Warehouse or Flex? One would be more likely to build a new structure rather than renovate and existing office building, and then again, the locations are usually too remote to be practical.

I suggest to you that there is no viable reuse that could work economically and all of the possibilities do not resolve the problem of isolation.

So what’s left? Farming. Here’s why:

  1. The land is some of the most fertile in the world. New Jersey is not the Garden State for nothing.
  2. Eyes closed, no peeking – I bet farming is a permitted use in the zone.
  3. Restoring the parcels to farmland is the most “green” thing conceivable, a feather in the cap of any multinational corporation.
  4. Sticking with the “green” line of thought, many of the demolition materials can be recycled or reused.
  5. This is not your grandpappy’s farming. Today’s organic farmers can grow crops and graze meat animals in more sustainable ways than ever. Joel Salatin is a great example: http://www.polyfacefarms.com/production/. No hippies here.
  6. Populations can be fed locally, which is healthier and less expensive because the transportation and refrigeration costs are minimized.
  7. The affluent population would welcome the choice of local food and have the means to buy it regularly.
  8. With a farmland assessment in place, the land can be carried almost indefinitely at virtually no cost.

So to all of you Chief Operating Officers out there, put on your overalls and your straw hat – farming is in your future.

Bell Labs, Holmdel, New Jersey. I can see my house from here – BG.

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