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Suburban office parks get urban injection

Movement in community redevelopment provides commute-weary employees hip new places to live, dine and shop near their work

 

By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

 

PLANO, Texas — When information technology giant EDS began moving its world headquarters in the 1980s from Dallas to this then-remote suburb, employees gazed out at thousands of acres of unspoiled Texas prairie. Longhorns and buffaloes grazed nearby. Unpaved roads surrounded the new corporate campus, one of the first in a 2,665-acre office park bearing the grand name Legacy.

 

Typical of the large corporations that settled in suburban office parks in the past 40 years, EDS and the many other employers who built glitzy headquarters here gave their employees plenty under one roof: cafeterias, health clubs, child care, banking services and more.

 

But that's no longer enough. Many of today's young professionals, the creative engines of the knowledge economy, don't want to feel stuck in a glass box. They prefer 24-hour, urban neighborhoods where they can work, walk, shop, dine and live.

 

As the competition for these high-skilled workers heats up, suburban office parks and corporate campuses are rethinking their sterile designs and adding shops, apartments and restaurants to create a slice of city life in suburbia.

 

They're realizing that typical company perks pale in comparison with the vibrant environment that employers in cities such as San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and New York can offer.

 

EDS' campus, for example, is beautiful but did not scream "cool" until 1999, when the Legacy Town Center opened in the office park about 20 miles from downtown Dallas.

 

Today, pedestrian-friendly streets, upscale boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, theaters, coffee shops, a town square, hotel and 640 apartments are within a five-minute walk from EDS' front gate. They're within a mile of other large employers such as J.C. Penney, Frito-Lay, Dr Pepper/7 UP, ComCast, AT&T Wireless, PepsiCo's information technology division and the Texas Regional Heart Center.

 

Sixty-five three-story townhouses selling for $200,000-$250,000 and 220 apartments renting from $700-$1,500 a month are under construction in the town center.

 

Workers' morale is "a huge issue" for employers, says Stephen Scott, manager of EDS Real Estate Asset, Legacy's developer. "The challenge of the suburbs is that they're dull. This is the anti-dull."

 

With almost 40,000 people working at Legacy, the business park is the size of a small city and the Legacy Town Center its downtown. Starbucks is here, but much of the trendy retail is local or regional: Restaurants such as Mi Cocina, Bishop Park Bistro and Jasper's; the Cru Wine Bar; Joni's Boutique and Culinary Connection. And Robb & Stucky Furniture and Design Studio, a favorite of interior decorators, has a 115,000-square-foot showroom.

 

EDS, the global information technology services company that Ross Perot founded and once ran, is across the street. Its front gate is visible from Bishop Square, where people jog around a lake, walk their dogs or sit on park benches.

 

Steve Zaiser, a financial analyst for EDS, jumped at the chance to move into a Legacy apartment two years ago. He can get up at 8 and be at work by 8:30. He can walk the quarter mile to his office.

 

"I wanted to be close to work but it was pretty neat to be close to all the shops and the dry cleaner," says Zaiser, 29. "And there's a place with great margaritas within a short distance."

 

'Urban' in suburban

 

The idea that suburban office parks and corporate campuses can be more than just places where people work is starting to take hold in many parts of the USA. The trend is fueled by an economy that relies on skilled and creative professionals — many of them young, single people who don't want to feel like they're in a corporate Guantanamo Bay.

 

They want to be free to roam and mingle with people of all walks of life, not just their colleagues. Some want to live close to work or at least work near restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores. They're health-conscious (they like to walk), environmentally aware (they want short commutes, services nearby and even mass transit) and fond of entertainment (they want bars, restaurants and theaters). In short, they want an urban lifestyle even though most jobs are in the suburbs.

 

Keeping up with this trend is a tall order for suburban employers. Their gleaming headquarters often tower over freeway exit ramps and are surrounded by a gray sea of parking lots. But the pressure to recruit and retain workers and get the most out of massive chunks of suburban real estate is prompting developers to respond:

 

• In Rockville, Md., a thriving suburb of Washington, D.C., JBG Companies are demolishing 30-year-old office buildings in a 20-acre office park and proposing an extreme makeover.

 

The developers have hired renowned Miami planner and architect Andres Duany to design a "live-work" center with loft apartments, stores, office buildings and easy access to mass transit. Duany is the founder of New Urbanism, a movement that applies urban design to suburban developments by creating communities that encourage walking and combine homes, shops and offices.

 

Today's young professionals "wouldn't be caught dead in an office park," Duany says. "What it's about is the lifestyle, not the look of the building. A glass box is totally uncool now."

 

• In San Jose, a 332-acre IBM corporate campus built in the 1950s is now owned by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies. The company wants to turn the valuable land around its headquarters into a "transit village" — housing, offices and shops near light-rail stations and a train line to San Francisco.

 

"Especially in Silicon Valley, employers look at two things: recruitment and retention," says Ken Kay, a San Francisco architect and urban planner who is converting the campus. "They don't want to force people to eat in an isolated cafeteria. ... And they're having a hard time recruiting people because there's no housing." The plan calls for 20% of the 3,000-plus apartments, condos, town homes and lofts to be affordable by San Jose standards.

 

• In Atlanta, Post Properties Inc. bought land along the Chattahoochee River that was part of another IBM campus and built Riverside, a development mixing offices and retail with 200 apartments above the shops. Another 330 apartments, a few high-end townhouses and several offices fill out the 40-acre development.

 

Moving beyond sprawl

 

As more people embrace alternatives to suburban sprawl, aging office parks are an untapped gold mine. They allow developers to create an urban environment, from streets and stores to offices and homes.

 

Just as cities have done for centuries, people who live or work in these communities don't have to get in their cars to get from one building to another. Urban street layouts encourage strolling. People can live above stores. All of which appeals to communities fed up with traffic congestion.

 

"There is a concern over quality of life and getting the best and brightest," says Dallas developer Art Lomenick, who helped design the Legacy Town Center. A managing director of Trammell Crow Co., Lomenick is working on similar projects in other Dallas suburbs.

 

The potential is huge.

 

"Think of them as land banks for future development," says Peter Katz, author of The New Urbanism who teaches at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Va. "If it's well located, today's failing office park could become tomorrow's downtown."

 

Steve Crosby, chairman of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, says there's still more interest in old warehouses and factories in cities' industrial districts than suburban office parks. But the group of commercial real estate owners and developers, based in Herndon, Va., began studying office park developments two years ago.

 

"It's clearly come on to our radar screen," Crosby says.

 

In the Dallas metropolitan area alone, about half of all office space was built in the early to mid-1980s. Those buildings are becoming obsolete, reaching the end of the typical 20-year commercial real estate cycle, when buildings become run down and their designs outdated. Ceilings may be too low. They may lack high-speed network cables. As a result, occupancy drops and values slip.

 

Other Sun Belt cities such as Atlanta, Denver and Houston boomed in recent decades and face the same scenario. Older parts of the Northeast and Midwest have a growing inventory of even older office parks.

 

An added appeal for developers is that the land is large and under one ownership — a combination that's tough to find in suburbs close to cities.

 

Keeping workers happy

 

The newfangled "office towns" appeal to people like Texas native Joseph Willrich, 25. After graduating from Texas A&M University, he got a job as a civil engineer in Fort Worth and lived downtown in a refurbished apartment. When his company transferred him to Frisco, a Dallas suburb on the edge of the Legacy office park, he immediately decided to live in the apartments in the town center.

 

"I wanted to live near where all the activities are, where good restaurants are, nightlife," Willrich says.

 

His commute is 5 minutes. He walks to the dry cleaner, the convenience store, the coffee shop. And he walks to dine at the string of restaurants in the center.

 

"That's really the beauty of the town center," he says. "I can work in a suburban type atmosphere, have an office in a bedroom community but achieve that urban feel."

 

Convenience and time-saving are becoming paramount. Increasingly, workers of all ages say they don't want their jobs to overshadow their family and social lives.

 

"Work-life balance is an issue of great importance," says Jennifer Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting for the Society for Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Va., group that represents 180,000 personnel professionals. It's one of the top five concerns for high-tech workers, according to the group's surveys.

 

Companies are realizing that their workers need more access to the outside to allow them to run errands at lunchtime or to foster civic engagement.

 

"It's about providing access, not acting as a barrier," Schramm says.

 

Employers also are concerned about keeping health care costs down. The lack of physical activity that leads to obesity and other health problems now is being tied to Americans' dependence on the automobile and the lack of walkable suburban communities.

 

"Employers are thinking about ways to encourage everyday activities to improve people's health," Schramm says. "We spend so much time at work. If we can change the way we work and the environment we work in, then we will be able to change the way we live."

 

Zaiser, the EDS employee who lives in the Legacy Town Center, gets a kick out of hearing his car-dependent colleagues gripe about their long commutes. "They're all jealous."