Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Are the Mill Creek and Salem Renewable Energy Office Parks Already Obsolete?

From a large commercial real estate firm, Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a fancy new management report, "Suburban Office Obsolescence," has been floating around a little bit, and in light of our new Director of Urban Development, and her stated charge to "lend her leadership to ongoing efforts to retain and grow existing businesses as well as attract businesses to Mill Creek and the Salem Renewable Energy Technology Center," it seems at least a little relevant.

The report's main focus is on existing, vintage 1980s campuses remote from city centers.

Salem doesn't really have any of those - though SAIF, the Civic Center, almost all of the projects in whole Pringle Creek Urban Renewal Area follow the campus forms of this model in many ways; the new cluster of State offices out on Fairview Industrial also meet it in some ways; and of course the Kroc Center is a disconnected campus in a more modern idiom. There's some campus influence here for sure.

Closer to the real subject of the report itself, we do have those parcels out by Kuebler and Gaffin Road that we seek to build into a new suburban office parks.

East of Kuebler, the Mill Creek Corporate Center
and Salem Renewable Energy and Techology Center
 are remote from anything except the interstate.
What do they say about location?
In a business that values location above all else, when tenants locational preferences change, asset values can be affected dramatically. For example, the expansiveness, serenity, and security of the 1980s suburban office campus once made that environment appealing for many professional and business services firms. Now, however, walkability and activated environments are at the top of many tenants' lists of must-haves. Suburban office buildings that have become obsolete due to car-centric and removed locations...are unlikely to achieve market-average rents as leases roll.
These aren't whackadoodle New Urbanists or transportation advocates talking about problems with "car-centric" development! These are suits, commercial real estate suits, responding to the market.

Indeed the very first criteria in the flow chart "Is my office building obsolete?" are about walkability:
  • Is the property walkable to public transit?
  • Is it walkable to neighborhood amenities?
On both of these the Mill Creek and Renewable Energy parks score poorly. Even with the good highway access they offer, they have none of the other amenities. They are suited perhaps for logistics and warehousing, but the "renewable" and "sustainable" focus is a lot of fairy-tale and gadget-green rather than something more substantive.

You might recall an interesting piece in the New York Times about this four years ago. Writing from her book, Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes, Louise A. Mozingo noted that
suburban offices are even more unsustainably designed than residential suburbs. Sidewalks extend only between office buildings and parking lots, expanses of open space remain private and the spreading of offices over large zones precludes effective mass transit.
It seems quite possible that our wanna-be office parks will become stranded assets, in whole or in part, and possible that the City ought increasingly to see them as sunk costs and seek instead to focus on downtown and sites more central.

More and more, sites on the edges of the Urban Growth Boundary are problematic. So this is something of a medium-range trend to file away and watch.

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