CityLab ran a story yesterday about the decline of the office park. It documented an encouraging trend: real estate data shows that suburban office parks are emptying out. The trend is happening in concert with an equally encouraging and opposite trend, the rise of so-called innovation districts, where businesses set up shop in cities to mingle (hoping for entrepreneurial kismet) with other businesses in urban retail, transit, and residential hubs instead of parking out in the isolated suburbs. It's like going to college at NYU (or the UW) versus going to college in upstate wherever. It's like the noisy SOMA model in San Francisco versus the quiet Microsoft model in Redmond. It's like the 2020s versus those 1980s and 1990s corporate "campuses" spoofed perfectly in the slapstick movie Office Space. Space is no longer the ideal. Cramped shoulder to shoulder and brain to brain is.
The article does note, though, that "the office park is not going down without a fight."
There are models that developers are using to transform older office parks throughout the country, to measured success. They mostly involve turning definitely-suburban office parks into urban-like, albeit still isolated, office “cities.” (It is worth noting that many of these projects involve extensive rezoning efforts.) A facility in the community of Edina, Minnesota, is in the midst of transforming from sprawling office center into what one local developer called “not your father’s or mother’s office park.” In practice, that means linking the park to 15 miles of bike trails, big box store-free retail, and green space. Other struggling office parks are talking farmers markets, hotels, and housing.
There's another corporate subterfuge as well. And Example A is happening right here in Seattle; it provided a bummer footnote to last year's seemingly exciting news that Expedia was moving its headquarters from downtown Bellevue to Interbay.
The 40-acre waterfront site along Elliott and 15th in Interbay where Expedia is moving isn't a jump into the city mix like Weyerhaeuser's move to Pioneer Square. While the Interbay neighborhood is denser than it used to be, it's mostly still a suburban style drag along Elliott Avenue West.
Expedia communications director Sarah Waffle Gavin didn't exactly sound like she was embracing the new vision of a city campus when she told me last year that it was time "for our grown-up company to have a grown-up tech campus to match," comparing their current Bellevue lease to being like a 22-year-old instead of "buying a grown-up home...a corporate campus befitting a global company."
Sorry, but maybe the philosophy of 22-year-olds is smarter. Buying a 40-acre waterfront campus as opposed to renting in a downtown Bellevue high-rise isn't the greenest move around.
Gavin is psyched, she told me, about just closing on "a, new, bigger, forever house" in Sammamish, even though she knew about her company's big move into the city for a while. Her decision to buy a house in the exurbs, a house she described in terms that mirrored her thoughts about Expedia's new grownup corporate campus, worked as a perfect metaphor of the problems behind the urbanist veneer of setting up shop in the city.
A low-slung office park on 40 sequestered acres along the waterfront, doesn't merge into the city; it creates a suburban-style bubble for commuters living far afield in another suburban bubble.
Really, it'd be better for the region, to have an urban hub in Bellevue—a packed high rise working as a magnet for local employees—that pushes Bellevue to redesign itself (light rail is already coming) into a more compact mini-city to work and live in. The more urban hubs around, the less suburban the region becomes.
A light rail line along 15th is on the table for ST3, but that wishful planning highlights the missed opportunity of Expedia's move to Seattle even more. Do we want 5,000 commuters stepping off a train in isolation (kind of the like the botched design for the Safeco light rail that now isolates fans from the supposed stadium district rather than channeling them onto city streets )?
The Sound Transit board—with suburban members from Kent and Redmond boasting of fast-tracked upzones in their cities—wants transit oriented development featuring height and density and mixed use along the light rail line. A major development in Seattle shouldn't defy that mandate.
I'm excited that a major suburban employer has decided to move to Seattle (start date 2019), but the city council and the ST board should impose some urban zoning because the current picture reads like the standard sprawl equation that connects single family homes to single-use corporate parks.