Suburban office parks nestle among acres of idyllic lawns dotted with fountain-fed ponds. These facilities are engulfed by seas of parking, each spot measuring roughly the same size as the cubicles within—an environment that no doubt inspires some workers to harbor Office Space fantasies involving baseball bats and printers.
The office park phenomenon began in the post-war 1940s, when white-collar workers traded city life for the ‘burbs and companies such as AT&T, General Electric, and General Motors followed suit in seeking the “pastoral ideal,” explains Louise Mozingo, Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design at UC Berkeley and author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. She writes, “corporations heralded the verdant pleasures of their new locations as substitutes for urban enticements.” In their new parks, these corporations gained both privacy and prestige while widening the gap between management and manufacturing.
But the grass is not always greener. Though suburban office parks—which range in program from plush corporate headquarters to sprawling research campuses—constitute over half of America’s office space today, they are suffering higher vacancy rates than their urban counterparts. Companies are choosing to move downtown once again, and their reasons range from plummeting suburban real estate values caused by the recent recession and high operating costs (those lawns require continual maintenance), to the migration of younger workers who prefer city-center amenities over playing house.
“I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily a widespread phenomenon—it’s a regional phenomenon,” Mozingo says. But evidence is building across the country in suburbs near major cities. In Chicago, according to Crain’s, overall suburban vacancy rates have reached nearly 25 percent, while overall downtown vacancy rates are under 15 percent. Other cities, such as Cincinnati, are squelching the construction of new office parks and the giant parking lots that accompany them by revising codes to promote walkability and increase public transportation options.
In some cases, companies are taking matters into their own hands. Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters might typify the office park typology, but the company provides a bus system for employees that covers more miles than the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. “Google realized the area has inadequate public transportation and employees do not want to commute in their own cars,” Mozingo says.