The tree-lined campus that once housed Toys R Us headquarters in Wayne, New Jersey, is 85% vacant. During the week, the 1,900 parking spaces are mostly empty. The same goes for the cafeteria. Hundreds of stalls are empty as the property awaits remodeling to something new.
The site, first built for the chemical conglomerate American Cyanamid in 1962, was a grandiose version of a mindset that reigned in the post-war American workplace on varying scales: the isolated 800,000-m² corporate headquarters, the research campus of 200,000 m² and the 12,000 m² office complex built in the shade of trees.
These places were in the suburbs and took into account the dependence on cars since the design. In all forms – administrative park, business park, corporate park, innovation park – the park was an essential part. Landscape researcher Louise Mozingo called this “pastoral capitalism,” naming the very American belief that office workers would perform better if they could look at manicured nature rather than the frenetic cityscape.
US suburban offices built between the 1960s and 1980s were already struggling before the pandemic, with aging systems and the changing tastes of millennials, a generation born between the 1980s and the mid-1990s. New generations want more urban offices, developers say, or at least suburban offices that feel more urban, with sidewalks and different places to eat. But now, with the possibility of remote work, “this could put an end to office parks,” said Louise.
In their heyday, suburban office parks offered a modern alternative to cramped office towers. In place of the seemingly noisy, congested and unpredictable city center, they promised quiet space.
middle of nowhere
However, this ideal of tranquility can be described differently today. “You’re in the middle of nowhere here,” said David DeConde, lead real estate development at Point View Wayne Properties, which purchased the Toys R Us campus in 2019.
There was a time at the start of the pandemic when it looked like office parks in the suburbs could come out of this as the winners in a job restructuring. They have the perfect setup for business between those who don’t want to get too close to each other. And they benefited from several early assumptions around the pandemic: that workers would avoid buildings with elevators, that people would leave cities, that it was the end of crowded places. “Basically, none of that came to fruition,” said Christian Beaudoin, head of global research consultancy at real estate Jones Lang LaSalle.
It is true that an increasing number of people have moved to the suburbs during the pandemic. But in practice, employers have not followed suit. That’s because it’s not so convenient to have an office in the suburbs for your employees when, in fact, they live in distant locations. On the contrary, as people moved to more remote areas, downtown locations became more important, said Arpit Gupta, a professor at the Stern School of Business at NYU.
The biggest trend of the pandemic, documented by Gupta and others, is that companies have shrunk in size and switched to using upgraded buildings. And rarely are they in office parks built in the 1970s.
Today, the few Point View Wayne Properties tenants in the former Toys R Us area are clustered together at one end of the building. For the future, 1,360 residential units are planned on the site. Chris Kok, an urban planner for Wayne County, envisions small businesses and startups on the ground.
Clay Grubb, who also works for a construction company, has been looking for exactly these kinds of places: office parks with a few thousand square meters of parking where he could build apartments. Residential buildings are expensive to build, but the land now being used for parking in the suburbs is cheap.
Another possibility is that some of these old office parks will not become anything else. Their owners may not be able to afford to renew them. Other buildings, already empty, will not find new owners. / TRANSLATION OF ROMINA CACIA