Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The suburban office park struggles to survive

The death of anything is usually not good news, but here is an exception: reports of the death of the suburban office park may be exaggerated but they are welcome to anyone who has seen the damage those office parks in the middle of nowhere are doing to landscapes, cities and those who have to work there.
Rutherford Office Park in Woodlawn, Baltimore County

PES, a DC based economic consultant just inside the District line from Maryland and run by by Anita B. Morrison and Abigail B. Ferretti, studied Montgomery County's office parks and came away with stunning, but not entirely surprising insights such as this:
By mid-year 2014, 11 large Montgomery County office buildings totaling 2.25 million square feet stood almost or totally vacant, and another nine, totaling 1.4 million more square feet, were “almost totally available,”

The numbers, to be honest, show a weakness in the overall regional office market, not just Montgomery County and not just single use office parks.

“Plentiful free parking is no longer sufficient to attract tenants,” the report finds.
In desirable submarkets with lower vacancy rates, public transportation access and mixed-use environments, recovery will come faster. For single-use office parks, “new construction will come much more slowly.”
Rutherford Park: Greenery, parking and easy beltway access are not enough
The study’s results may not shock, but they are sobering. And this is by no means only a Montgomery County issue. More than 71 million square feet of office space is vacant across the D.C. region. Fairfax County, Va., accounts for the largest share, 28 percent, followed by D.C. with 22 percent, Montgomery with 15 percent and Prince George’s County with 7 percent. In Loudoun, Va., huge swaths of land are zoned for office parks that have not been built because there’s no leasing interest.

Baltimore area office parks are located in the County along I-695 on the west (The Rutherford Park near Martins West), in Hunt Valley and Owings Mills.  Except for the westside, the other areas are struggling to become mixed use "town-centers", a move that cannot come fast enough if the PES study is representative.
The study’s recommendations:
  • Diversify existing office parks with a mix of uses
  • Invest in transit
  • Use tax-increment financing to fund parking garages that eliminate surface parking lots, freeing up land for infill development
  • Create and upgrade public spaces and the “walkable environment"
  • Remove “any zoning impediments” to redevelopment
PES' recommendation #2 makes transit an asset that speaks for Hunt Valley and Owings Mills and an argument that applies to both the Red and the Purple lines that would both increase access to office parks and employment centers.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about the PES report

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