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The scene is familiar to anyone who has watched “The Office” or worked a 9-to-5 in the last 50 years. Cubicles. Poor lighting. And, out the window, a view of a parking lot and sprawling green grass. This is the image of the classic suburban office building, whose popularity rose in postwar America.
Partly because of the era of remote work, many of those parking lots and cubicles are now empty. In an article that appears in today’s Sunday Business section, Emily Badger, who covers cities and urban policy for The Upshot, explores, as she puts it, the “lonely last days” of suburban office parks. Below, she shares how office closures might affect local economies and considers whether the same fate is coming for Big Tech campuses. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you get the idea for this story?
Everybody is familiar with the phenomenon that downtowns emptied out during the pandemic. Earlier this year, I came across data from a researcher named Tracy Hadden Loh at the Brookings Institution. She was looking at data suggesting that there are some markets around the country where vacancy rates are actually higher in some suburban neighborhoods than they are in what real estate folks call the central business district.
That got me thinking, “Oh, yeah, there’s this whole other kind of office in America that hasn’t gotten as much attention.” It was the predominant way that we built office space in this country in the postwar period up through the mid- to late 1990s. Everyone is familiar with this stuff: Either you worked there, your dad worked there or you watched the movie “Office Space.” It’s ubiquitous, but it hasn’t really been front of mind. I thought, “What on earth is happening to these places, which were already sparsely populated, when you layer remote work on top of that?”
I’m surprised that few of them were revamped when open concept came into vogue.
One of the campuses that I focused on was the corporate headquarters of Toys “R” Us in Wayne, N.J. There are a lot of very large corporations in America that have their offices in these locations. But then there’s also just a lot of local accountants’ or lawyers’ offices — your Dunder Mifflins. These buildings were serving their purpose — functional office space that was accessible to people. It just so happens that now we arrive at the pandemic, and a lot of timelines have come into alignment. These buildings are now 30, 40, 50 years old; they’re becoming kind of obsolete. The nature of the economy has changed — now, what we call knowledge work depends on having all these collaborative spaces and spaces where workers bump into each other, as opposed to cubicle farms. Then you layer remote work on top of that.
Did you travel to these campuses?
I grew up in Chicago, and I was there earlier this spring, driving through the suburbs on one of the expressways. You see this landscape of boxy corporate office parks, one after the other, lined up along the highway. They all have big corporate logos on the outside of the building that are designed to be read by drivers. The parking lots are all empty. That’s another thing that got me thinking that this is a really interesting and very particularly American kind of place, and something interesting is happening in it right now.
How do these closures affect the economies of the towns the buildings are in?
Part of what’s interesting about these spaces is what’s happening not just in the office parks themselves, but to the identity of the surrounding communities. Many places are tied to “Oh, we’re the home of the corporate headquarters of Allstate.” Local communities draw a lot of their tax revenue from these offices. To take those things away or to contemplate changing them into something else, like apartment buildings, entails almost a radical rethinking, not just of these spaces, but of the identity of the community around it.
How do you think these offices compare to Big Tech campuses? Are they next?
Apple built this sprawling suburban campus. A number of other tech companies, particularly in Silicon Valley, have done this also. In many ways, they have the same problems as this older generation of offices in that they’re isolated, they’re car-dependent and they’re not connected to the surrounding communities. In some ways they’re intentionally designed not to be connected. A lot of these places have faux main streets built into them so that you have that feeling that there are activities happening there other than work. In that way, They have more amenities, but they still have the underlying idea that this is a closed-off space.
How did you take a topic that could be dry and find such an interesting entry point?
To me, this is not a real estate story. It’s a story about this idea that has been central to our culture for 50 or 60 years. We’re not just rethinking physical office space, but we’re rethinking the ideas behind that space. I always want to know, what is the history of this thing? Where did these ideas come from? I frequently, in my reporting, talk to not just developers and economists, but the historians and, in this case, people who are experts in architecture and landscape architecture. It turns out that there’s this fascinating origin story about these places and why they exist. To me, it was clear from the moment I thought about suburban office parks that this is a topic freighted with other interesting issues that I could bring on board in reporting on it.
Was anything else surprising about your reporting?
A very central theme in my reporting was the idea of greenery and green space. It’s this charming idea that lots of employers once had: If you’re sitting at your desk and you gaze out the window and there’s trees, you will have wonderful ideas that you otherwise wouldn’t have. One of the things that was really valuable in my reporting was this book by Louise Mozingo called “Pastoral Capitalism.” It’s all about these places. I think it’s such a fun and interesting idea, and it makes me reflect on how I spend a lot of time working from home now, just gazing out the window as I’m trying to figure out how to write things.
It’s really interesting to me, in retrospect, that this whole idea of the office building was built around this very deeply held belief that lightning will strike you with brilliant ideas if you can look out the window at trees instead of, like, the air shaft of the office building next to you. There is definitely some value in that, and there’s also some value in being able to walk out of your building and run into other people. As is the case with lots of things, some combination of all of the above is probably pretty healthy.