July 21st, 2015
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
Multi-unit buildings are making a comeback. Construction is now at the best level in 30 years. It’ll be curious how far this trend goes.
The American ghost town has assumed different forms: the abandoned gold-rush towns out West, the silent Floridian subdivisions of underwater McMansions. Now, we have fiefdoms of mid-Atlantic office space, on streets named Research Boulevard and Professional Drive, thinning out in the sprawl. They are hobbled by changing work styles and government shrinkage. People telecommute. People move into the city or into faux-urban areas that are friendlier to pedestrians, that aren’t barnacled on a highway. Younger generations don’t want to be stranded in a “Dilbert” cartoon. They want cozy nooks and nap spaces, walkable commutes, the tastes and conveniences of the city.
There are 71.5 million square feet of vacant office space in the D.C. region, much of it piled in office parks.
How did we get here? Why do we work in office parks, and why are we now souring on them?
Let’s blame Thomas Jefferson.
“I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America,” Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. “When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”
“In some kind of really bizarre way, there’s a line from Thomas Jefferson to the office park,” says Louise A. Mozingo, chair of the department of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote the book “Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes.” Office parks “are very symbolic of American distrust of the center city. . . . The ideal American, in [Jefferson’s] political writing, is a small farmer. We’re no longer on farms, but we work in this tended green environment.”
Starting in 1941, companies such as AT&T pioneered the concept of corporate campuses, which were modeled after universities in order to attract PhDs and other top-flight brains. The first office park opened in Mountain Brook, Ala., an upper-class white suburb of Birmingham, in the early 1950s as commuters became uneasy with simmering racial tension in city centers. The model soon spread to Atlanta and Boston, where the real-estate firm Cabot, Cabot & Forbes turned the speculative development of office parks into a bonanza of profit.
The parks were landscaped like Winslow Homer paintings, with a touch of Philip K. Dick science fiction.