The COVID Collapse of the Office Park

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Sprawl Huntsville, AL 07MAR22 3347 modified

   Office parks are toast; if you’re a partner, director, investor, or trustee of one, start thinking now about how to redevelop your asset before it becomes a liability in the near future. Google “office park failing” and you’ll get million of results. The demise of the office park has been increasingly apparent for years, hastened by the Millennials’ distaste for boring suburban office parks; COVID19 is merely the coup de grâce. Here’s why:

The Brain-Dead Cool Factor

Glenwood Park 10MAY22 8956

the new reality: Cool Factor or Bust

   Millennials are legendary for picking a cool city, then finding a cool neighborhood in that city, then finding a job they can walk or bike to from where they live. Almost every office park fails every test for Cool Factor ever invented. If you want young talent, you absolutely cannot be in an office park less cool than the Apple Ring. Just forget about it. So how do you achieve a reasonable Cool Factor? Think back to when the Millennials were teens. Where did they go in your town? Almost everywhere, they congregated where there was some shred of urbanism; where the uses were mixed and the building types varied. Office parks are the antithesis on every count.

Efficiency Deficit Disorder

research park existing

a little bit of building, lots more parking
& lots of wasted space

   Le Corbusier, dead for over a half-century, still haunts the American landscape with his “drive 30 miles to work” edict, and also haunts the architecture academy as their long-dead god. Corbusier famously called for the destruction of the best of Paris to be replaced with his trademark “towers in the park” in his wretched Plan Voisin. In American office parks, his towers in the park have become “mid-rises in the parking lot.” And they’re hideously inefficient. Take this example from a place I know well. This is a 100,000 square foot building filled with people doing meaningful biotech work. It sits on 18 acres of land. But look at how much more they could accomplish using just basic urbanism like the 50 foot “green depth” and interior parking courts!

research park transformed

the same land, reconfigured as city blocks

   They would get their 100,000 square feet on the first floor, plus an additional 80,000 square feet of stuff like coffee shops, neighborhood groceries, pharmacies, and the basic necessities of life… all on the first floor! Then the two floors above that could be 360 1,000 square foot units, 720  500 square foot units, or whatever mix worked for the local market. Or they could get the entire 100,000 square feet on just a couple of the blocks using all three stories and have that much more mixed use on the street level. Either way, you’d be able to live, work, shop, eat, and walk home… all on the space currently wasted on today’s office park! Corbusier’s Curse on America is felt nowhere worse than the doomed office park. Let’s get to work fixing this mess! Why waste so much profit potential any longer? Make places that pay their own bills and keep on profiting!

The Infrastructure Burden

Sprawl Huntsville, AL 07MAR22 3349-1

parking area exceeds building area
in sprawl because you must drive
everywhere for everything

   Sprawling districts like office parks are not only inefficient in themselves, but impose a great infrastructure burden on the municipalities where they’re located roughly proportional to the inefficient land use within their borders. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 have been exposing the Ponzi scheme of sprawl for over a decade, showing how every city pre-COVID had a date at which it would go bankrupt due to its inability to continue to maintain the infrastructure in sprawl, which can easily have as much as 3-4 times the infrastructure per property as traditional urbanism. The pandemic may have compressed the bankruptcy timeframe for cities from decades or years to months or even weeks. This will be a question of survival for municipalities all over, and let’s be clear: office parks may have a lot of high-income white-collar occupants with political influence, but the development form puts them close to last in terms of tax revenue vs. infrastructure maintenance burden. In business terms, they’re “alligators,” and they will eat you.

Home Officing


working at home isn’t limited to indoors

   The previous three problems are long-standing; this one is newer. Yes, New Urbanists have been advocating for live/work units and other forms of working from home for decades, and some of us have tried it, but it was not so pervasive a practice in the pre-quarantine days. Now, however, the millions lucky enough to still be employed and able to work from home are giving it a massive test run. And no, not everyone loves it. Those with small children are finding it especially challenging. But these are enormously eye-opening days for many companies, as they ask “what if we don’t really need this huge space with its huge rent?” Expect many of those companies to downscale post-COVID to varying degrees. Others will follow the PlaceMakers example, which has since the beginning operated with everyone in different cities. I look for those companies to provide stipends for the cost of the home office and childcare for those who need it. If these things happen, then office rents will soon be far more affordable. Couple that with the fact that lease delinquency is massive, and it’s obviously high time for all office building owners, whether in an office park or somewhere else, to start getting creative on what to do now.

Real Solutions

Sprawl Repair Manual cover

Galina Tachieva’s excellent book

   Fifteen years ago, the common solution in most places to a failed land use type like office parks was decline and eventual abandonment. Fortunately, much work has been done in the intervening years on what is now known as Suburban Retrofit, Sprawl Repair, or Sprawl Recovery. There are now reams of techniques out there such as those found in the Sprawl Repair Manual and Retrofitting Suburbia. Other resources include Build a Better Burb, hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism. And you can (and should) start small instead of huge demolish-and-rebuild plans. Begin the very first things tactically, then build in small increments because not many want to spend huge chunks of money at the moment.

Dinosaur or Chrysalis?

   Dinosaurs are… well, you know, dead. Will the office park be remembered as a dinosaur or a chrysalis? The chrysalis is the intermediate form between a caterpillar and a butterfly. The dinosaur ran out of chances to transform, but it’s in the blood of the chrysalis. What is the office park? It depends on the leadership in each one. If they’re willing to transform on the scale of an extreme makeover, then it’s not actually that hard to do since office parks are made up of big chunks of mostly-empty land, meaning that many things are possible. And it has already been done; check out the Township at Colony Park, which began 20 years ago to build a robust mixed-use community in a couple pods of an office park. Mike Thompson can tell you more about it. So it comes down to this for the leadership: are you willing to grow up and become a city so you can pay your own way and attract young talent, or will you get stuck and die? It’s your choice.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020