FINDING A HOME IN AN OFFICE PARK
From the rooftop terrace of their new townhouse, Keisuke and Idalia Yabe take in their suburban Maryland neighborhood: a staid, 1970s-era office park of glass office buildings and concrete parking garages.
The Yabes say they have found the advantages of urban living in a shorter commute and the ability to walk to shopping centers and a park. They also have what feels like the best of suburbia — mature trees, plentiful parking, Bethesda’s sought-after schools and a more affordable mortgage.
From the Washington and New York suburbs to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, traditional corporate campuses that have struggled since the Great Recession are trying to transform from sterile worksites into vibrant minitowns. In addition to housing, they’re adding restaurants, grocery stores, playgrounds and outdoor concert spaces.
Although it might sound strange at first, the Yabes say, living in an office park feels convenient and even a bit hip.
“The location is ideal,” said Keisuke Yabe, 45, after returning from an evening walk with their 7-monthcludes old daughter, Mela, just as the sun ducked behind a 14story office building.
“For me, if anything, it’s ‘Oh, this is pretty cool,’” said Idalia Yabe, 38. “I think the office setting makes it seem like we’re in a city a bit more and not as much in the suburbs.”
For many suburban business centers, attracting residents such as the Yabes is a matter of survival.
Once an elite address for companies fleeing downtowns, suburban office parks have grown increasingly obsolete as businesses have scaled back on office space or returned to transit-rich cities to attract young professionals. Those reachable only by car or bus have been hit particularly hard. In Rock Spring Park, where the Yabes live, the office vacancy rate has hovered around 22 percent.
Experts say suburban office parks have plenty to offer residential developers. Many are close to major roads and near top-ranked public schools, and their sprawling campuses and vast parking lots provide land that has become increasingly scarce in lucrative areas.
“On the surface, suburban office parks don’t immediately suggest residential,” said Stockton Williams, a housing expert for the Urban Land Institute. “But they can be transformed. … It will take some creativity, but it’s certainly doable.”
EYA, the company developing the Yabes’ Montgomery Row complex, embraced Rock Spring’s corporate address, said Mclean Quinn, an EYA vice president. The park in- Marriott International, which is moving its headquarters to a more urban area to attract younger workers, Lockheed Martin, National Institutes of Health facilities and dozens of doctors’ offices.
Quinn said EYA saw potential in the office park’s network of sidewalks, walkable location near Westfield Montgomery Mall and two shopping centers, and proximity to in-demand schools. He said the townhouses are drawing younger families seeking a “move-up home” with more space than they could afford in the District of Columbia, as well as empty nesters downsizing from farther-out suburbs such as Potomac.
“It’s not directly on transit, but it’s very much a less suburban location than from where a lot of these folks are coming from,” he said. “For a lot of our folks, it’s very urban.”
The townhouses range from about $750,000 to $1 million. Of the 168 homes, 89 have sold, Quinn said.
In suburban New Jersey, developers are converting the former 2-millionsquare-foot Bell Labs headquarters in the affluent township of Holmdel into new office space, stores and restaurants. Toll Brothers is building 40 single-family homes, averaging $1.7 million apiece, and 185 “active adult” townhouses on former Bell Labs property near the massive office building.
Chris Gaffney, a group president for Toll Brothers, said people will want to live amid a 450-acre corporate campus for the same reasons they’ve always flocked to certain suburbs: convenience and nearby topnotch public schools.
“Like anything else in real estate, it’s all location,” Gaffney said. “The Garden State Parkway is right there, it’s a half-hour to the Jersey Shore, 50 minutes to Manhattan – it’s just an incredible location.”
Suburban office park managers say they’re also trying to keep and attract office tenants who tell them they can’t recruit the best talent unless staffers can walk to restaurants, shopping and even to and from home.
For that reason, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park soon will get its first 600 apartments, along with restaurants, a grocer and other stores.
“Honestly, we are responding to how people want to live, work and play in the same area,” said Linda Hall, the Research Triangle Foundation’s chief financial officer.
Keisuke and Idalia Yabe walk their dog through the quiet office park in Bethesda, Md., where they purchased a home.