It’s lunch hour at a new office park, and thousands of office employees are stepping away from their desks. Some of them are walking to nearby eateries, meeting with friends at open-air cafés or grabbing quick bites to go. Other workers are strolling paths under leafy trees, while yet others may be dropping off dry cleaning or getting haircuts nearby. This vision of an innovative suburban office park isn’t just an ideal anymore; instead, forward-thinking mixed-use developments are becoming a welcome reality.
This modern office environment is a far cry from the typical sprawling suburban office park. Surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lots, where workers park as close as they can to their desks, “we got away from designing places to accommodate how people live and instead forced people to live in patterns that accommodated segregated use,” says Burrell Saunders of Virginia-based firm Saunders + Crouse Architects, which plans and designs mixed-use developments. “As a result, people spend much of their time in their cars without opportunities to interact or socialize.”
High office vacancy rates reflect people’s disillusionment with traditional office parks. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 1988 and 1989, over 160 million square feet of new suburban office space was created; in 2011 and 2012, that number had plummeted to just over 12 million square feet. Moreover, as of 2013, 17 percent of suburban office spaces were empty. “The bottom line is that the suburban-centric, auto-dependent office corridors are out of fashion and may have run their course,” James W. Hughes, dean of Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, has said.
The solution? “Employment centers that are thriving provide a greater mix of options and alternatives for people to integrate their lifestyle into their work. Places working towards this have higher rents and lower vacancy rates,” says Saunders, who has been lead architect for redevelopment of Innsbrook, a 30-year old 1,300-acre office park near Richmond, VA, where more than 20,000 people currently work. Over the next few decades, billions of dollars will be spent turning parts of the area into a mini urban village in the Innsbrook Next project, with retail, housing, hotels, and amenities all centered around the existing lake system.
Similar reuse is taking place in Tysons, VA, an office area clogged with cars where over 105,000 people work—but few people actually live. In 2010, Fairfax County approved an ambitious 230-page plan to turn Tysons into a walkable, livable community that will attract people back to the suburbs with urban amenities. Hoping to have 100,000 residents, the project includes a comprehensive transit system, biking and walking trails, recreation centers and playing fields, and affordable housing, along with high-rise condos.
Other examples include the Upper Saddle River project in New Jersey, where proposals are underway to turn a vacant 47-acre corporate campus into a luxury mixed-use development; the Crystal Plaza project, in which a block of suburban office towers in Arlington, VA, is being remade into a vibrant residential, retail, and working area; and the addition of a mixed-use component within a massive office park in Houston, TX.
With office culture shifting away from 9-5 weekdays and closed-cube floor plans toward flextime and a desire to integrate living, playing, and eating options near corporate campuses, it only makes sense to rethink the traditional office park—and to put the vast outdated expanses of empty suburban office space to work. As Saunders says, “We’ve got to manage what we’ve already built—and make it better.”