Revamping the suburban office park

Suburban office parks know they have to up their game to entice companies and workers away from the bright lights of downtown areas that many now call home.

November 27, 2017

There’s plenty of ground to make up; the last decade has seen a steady stream of corporates migrating from suburbs as they follow talent they need to stay ahead in the modern business world.

In response, suburban property owners are fighting back to recreate the best of the connected, urban experience in campus-style buildings and amenities, from complex infrastructure overhauls to social programs like Food Truck Fridays.

“We’re seeing a profound change in workforce values,” says Scott Homa, Senior Vice President and Director of U.S. Office Research at JLL. “Millennials don’t share the old mentality that self-worth can be defined by the kind of car you drive or the size of your office. Today’s workers want to feel connected to work, without sacrificing personal time, so they’re gravitating to dense, vibrant and walkable communities where they can ditch the time-sucking commute and live more sustainable, sociable and efficient lives.”

Going all in for vibrant, connective environments

One of the key ways to attract the modern workforce starts at site selection by choosing locations with good access to transit and a desirable talent pool. Connectivity is top of the list for projects across the U.S.— nearly half of all office development is now taking place in transit-friendly submarkets.

“From a new development perspective, there’s a disproportionate amount of construction on transit lines,” says Homa. “That’s where tenants want to be.” And they’re willing to pay up for the perk, too, with rents roughly 79.5 percent higher in submarkets with transit than those without.

Access to trains and buses is only part of the mobility equation. “People want to move around easily in ways that are convenient to them,” says Homa. “That means developers sometimes need to advocate for changes at the city level, from installing more sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes, to redesigning street grids to make them more pedestrian-friendly and efficient.”

Another major area of opportunity lies in redefining the very character of the office park. If the modern workforce is craving a mixed-use, live-work-play environment, then it only makes sense that some office parks are rezoning to become full-on mixed-use developments.

For example, at Capital One’s 24.5-acre headquarter campus in suburban Washington DC, developers are moving ahead with construction of a 1,500-seat auditorium, a popular grocery store and high-density residential area after getting the county’s green light on some major zoning permit changes.

Meanwhile Reston Town Center, a mixed-use, pedestrian-focused development in Northern Virginia, also prioritized accessibility, with an urban street grid set amid a larger network of regional highways and interchanges. The development will also be served by the region’s rail system starting in 2020.

Shopping facilities also give office parks an edge, whether it’s a grocery store to pick up food for dinner or a cafe for colleagues to catch up over a coffee at lunch. “When considering new sites or major renovations, corporate park leaders are beginning to look at ways they can activate retail,” says Homa, “whether it’s building on adjoining land, or carving out space within the development itself for restaurants or retailers that appeal to office tenants.”

Simpler wins in office park connectivity

Fortunately for owners of existing properties, access to transit and complicated zoning changes aren’t the only ways to add energy to rejuvenate an office park. Outdoor areas can be a key area of differentiation. “Thoughtfully designed green space can become an asset that urban locations simply can’t compete with,” according to Homa. In addition to simply offering more attractive spaces such as gardens and patios to sit and relax, some corporate parks are mixing in active areas, like Bocce ball courts and jogging trails.

For example, at Ballantyne corporate office park in Charlotte, employees in any of the park’s Class A office buildings can step outside their workspace to explore an array of mini parks, putting green, and 16 miles of walking trails and bike paths.

Making space for events-driven programs can also up the energy level in and around the workplace. Some building owners are bringing in food trucks to help fill the dearth of dining options in sprawling neighborhoods and create a buzz among employees. Meanwhile, movie nights can inspire the day-crowd to stick around for evening socializing.

And having extra space on hand can also work in the favor of office parks in popular suburban areas in other ways. “Suburban campuses are finding new value in offering co-working space, too,” says Homa. “As more people start freelancing and working remotely, they are finding that co-working spaces close to home help them feel part of a vibrant business environment without a long commute.”

He points to Reston Town Center as an example, where at least three co-working providers currently operate, including RegusMakeOffices and Carr Workplaces.

In the suburbs, it’s not easy to break the one-dimensional mold that was driven by car culture. But by trying to develop more dynamic environments for locationally challenged buildings, they can provide a modern and lively alternative to the allure of downtown.