Bare of­fice parks get re­pur­posed for ur­ban-lite life

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KATHER­INE SHAVER

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 mini-towns. In ad­di­tion to hous­ing, they’re adding restau­rants, gro­cery stores, play-

grounds and out­door con­cert spa­ces — any­thing to draw peo­ple in and make them want to stay.

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-month-old daugh­ter, Mela, just as the sun ducked be­hind a 14-story 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, com­pared with 15 per­cent across the rest of Mont­gomery County.

Mont­gomery of­fi­cials were caught off guard in 2015 when Mar­riott International, one of the county’s largest pri­vate em­ploy­ers, an­nounced it would be mov­ing its head­quar­ters out of Rock Spring Park be­cause it needed a more ur­ban, tran­sit-friendly area to at­tract younger work­ers. The com­pany is build­ing a new head­quar­ters in down­town Bethesda, walk­a­ble to Metro and the planned light-rail Pur­ple Line. When Mar­riott moves out, county plan­ners say, Rock Spring’s va­cancy rate could jump to 39 per­cent.

Mean­while, 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.”

Bob Ge­o­las, a real es­tate eco­nomic devel­op­ment con­sul­tant in Raleigh, N.C., said sub­ur­ban of­fice parks can re­tool them­selves for ur­ban-lov­ing com­pa­nies and res­i­dents who are likely to want more space at more af­ford­able prices as their staffs or fam­i­lies grow.

“We’re not go­ing to tear down all those build­ings, so how do you reimag­ine them?” said Ge­o­las, for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Re­search Tri­an­gle Foun­da­tion, which man­ages 7,000-acre Re­search Tri­an­gle Park in North Carolina. “I think it’s a real op­por­tu­nity for the sub­urbs to make a hip come­back.”

EYA, the com­pany de­vel­op­ing the Yabes’ Mont­gomery Row com­plex, em­braced Rock Spring’s cor­po­rate ad­dress, said McLean Quinn, an EYA vice pres­i­dent. In ad­di­tion to Mar­riott, the of­fice park in­cludes 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, 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 ur­ban.”

The town­houses range from about $750,000 to $1 mil­lion, al­though some are priced at be­low­mar­ket rates un­der county re­quire­ments for “mod­er­ately priced” hous­ing. Of the 168 homes, 89 have sold, Quinn said.

In sub­ur­ban New Jersey, de­vel­op­ers are con­vert­ing the for­mer 2-mil­lion-square-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 top-notch 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.”

Such large tracts of open land in high-de­mand sub­urbs, he said, “are few and far be­tween.”

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 of­fivery cer. “There are lit­er­ally no restau­rants” in the park, Hall said.

In North­ern Vir­ginia, the 1,100acre West­fields International Cor­po­rate Cen­ter at Dulles has 155 town­houses — the first homes ever in the 1980s-era Chan­tilly of­fice park — and a Weg­mans gro­cery store un­der con­struc­tion. Plans in­clude two apart­ment build­ings, re­cre­ational trails, a movie the­ater and an am­phithe­ater for com­mu­nity events.

Bill Keech Jr., whose Keech Co. man­ages the of­fice park, said he thinks plenty of the 26,000 peo­ple who work in West­fields will want to live there. New stores and restau­rants, he said, also will help the auto-cen­tric park, which is seven miles from the clos­est Metro sta­tion, com­pete for ten­ants against of­fice build­ings pop­ping up around new Sil­ver Line sta­tions.

“When you look at cre­at­ing a spe­cial place, it’s a change for us too,” Keech said. “It’s like we’re rein­vent­ing a town.”

Of course, build­ing a town, or even a new neigh­bor­hood, has its chal­lenges. A big one: The new homes cater­ing to young fam­i­lies didn’t ex­ist — and of­ten weren’t even imag­ined — when nearby schools were planned and built. In Bethesda, for ex­am­ple, the schools that serve Mont­gomery Row are among the most over­crowded in the county.

Another chal­lenge is how to cre­ate a sense of “vi­brancy” and “place” — the feel­ing of liv­ing and hang­ing out in a fash­ion­able, in­ter­est­ing des­ti­na­tion — in of­fice parks that can feel down­right ster­ile, es­pe­cially for early res­i­dents who ar­rive be­fore stores and restau­rants.

For all its mod­ern de­sign and quasi-ur­ban feel, Mont­gomery Row res­i­dents have plenty of re­minders that they live where thou­sands of other peo­ple work.

On a re­cent week­day, of­fice work­ers with ID badges slung around their necks strolled the side­walks and took mid­morn­ing smoke breaks across the street. By evening, the area was so de­serted that the hum of in­dus­trial air con­di­tion­ers could be heard amid the bird chirps.

Tom Pariser, 57, said the area is just what he and his wife were look­ing for when they wanted to down­size af­ter their three grown chil­dren had moved out of their Alexan­dria house. He said they like be­ing able to walk more and drive less. And his wife’s six-minute walk­ing com­mute to her job in the of­fice park sure beats the hours she used to slog through traf­fic.

Pariser said he ex­pects the area will feel more res­i­den­tial soon, par­tic­u­larly once Mar­riott’s cam­pus across the street is re­de­vel­oped, likely into of­fices, restau­rants, shops and more homes.

“You don’t feel like you’re in deep­est, dark­est sub­ur­bia here,” Pariser said. “I think you’re look­ing at the be­gin­ning of a trans­for­ma­tion. I think in 20 years, this area will look a lot dif­fer­ent.”

JASON AN­DREW FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Keisuke and Idalia Yabe sit on their rooftop with their 7-month-old daugh­ter, Mela, and their dog. Their re­cently purchased town­house is in the Rock Spring Park of­fice com­plex in North Bethesda, Md.

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