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Does the office park have a future?

Back in the spring, it was hard for me to imagine that Covid would have real lasting consequences on our cities. After all, humanity has dealt with epidemics of disease for countless centuries. However, lately, I have wondered about the future of one specific type of development: the suburban office park.

In my experience, these single purpose landscapes may be the most vulnerable piece of suburban landscape even well after a vaccine is widely available.

Aerial view of an example of a suburban office park outside Ann Arbor, Michigan (Google Maps)
Aerial view of an example of a suburban office park outside Ann Arbor, Michigan (Google Maps)

The pandemic has caused basically every white collar worker to simultaneously take a crash course in working remotely and holding virtual meetings. I suspect that more employees and employers will be willing to allow these habits to continue following the end of this health crisis, especially if they can show that productivity has not suffered beyond an acceptable level.

Part of the reason managers and business owners might allow more remote work into future decades is so they can make substantial cuts to costs associated with owning or leasing office space.

Single purpose office parks are poorly suited to adapt to non-office uses following a global shift toward remote work. While a few light industrial uses may be able to occupy vacant office buildings, I am not optimistic about the future of the suburban office park in the long run.

Indeed, I believe office parks are ripe to be re-imagined as whole neighborhoods that integrate with their surrounding cities.

Prior to the pandemic, pressure on suburban office parks seemed to be coming from generational shifts in preferences. Indeed, the initial demand to build suburban office parks was a negative perception of central cities by previous generations – aka white flight.

The suburban office park is an easy target for criticism. The typical office park suffers from banal aesthetics, utilitarian design, and large swaths of green lawns (usually only used for stormwater remediation). It has been the subject of pop culture ridicule for decades.

Office Space, a 1999 film set in a fictional suburban office park. (IMDB)
Office Space, a 1999 film set in a fictional suburban office park. (IMDB)

Some effort has gone into considering how office parks may be able to adapt to changing trends, but these often seem to be proposals of surface level changes like adding a bocce ball court or a food truck. I think a deeper change is needed. The time has come for these office park spaces to be re-imagined from the ground up.

In Retrofitting Suburbia, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson make the case for redesigning auto-dependent and single-use landscapes into more sustainable and urban places. In my experience with this topic, most focus has been on the adaptation of suburban retail areas, but there is no reason why the suburban retrofit approach cannot also be used to redevelop office parks.

Planners should start thinking about long term strategies for redeveloping suburban office parks pro-actively. These might include

  • Encourage a mix of land uses including residential
  • Improve connectivity to nearby neighborhoods and districts
  • Invest in true public space and green infrastructure
  • Increase density where demands exist
  • Consider remediation options for sites without redevelopment potential

No city leader should expect a single developer to swoop in and undertake these complex and risky projects. Retrofitting these spaces is still largely uncharted territory. Incremental redevelopment approaches will likely be necessary for many suburban office parks. This might mean allowing some temporary uses and site subdivisions.

Finally, these spaces should not be left out of conversations regarding systemic racism and equity. Indeed, the driver for the development of much of suburban America was a racist impulse to escape cities perceived by white people as dangerous. Each community will have to reckon with this issue in its own way as these conversations unfold.

I believe that redeveloping suburban office parks can open up new opportunities for building new housing and establishing new enterprises. The critical step will be to connect these new opportunities to the people who most need them.