It's not easy being an ugly office building in New Jersey. Drive down any suburban stretch and these dinosaurs from the 1980s languish on the roadside, lonely reminders of a time when builders thought everyone would want to work in suburbia forever. But those days are gone and now landlords can't unload these eyesores. For some developers, the best solution is to turn them into something they never were: Pretty.
When real estate giant Realogy relocated from Parsippany to its new headquarters in Madison, N.J., this spring, no one would have guessed that this light and glassy edifice was once a windowless Verizon call center. But transforming the brick tomb into an inviting structure was the best way to attract a well-heeled tenant like Realogy, the parent company for Sotheby’s, Century 21, Coldwell Banker, and others. The company, with 1,000 employees at the Madison location, leased the entire building.
“The only way we could differentiate ourselves was to build something that really was above and beyond the commodity product,” says Todd M. Anderson, a principal at Hampshire Real Estate Companies, which re-developed the three-story building. “Tenants are looking for the whole environment – the transparency, the vision, the clarity.”
Eighty percent of New Jersey’s office stock was built in the 1980s and 90s, according to a Rutgers University report. But as workers flock to city centers, office availability rates have soared to nearly 25 percent in the second quarter of 2013, according to data provided by Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, the broker for Verizon in the sale of the Madison property.
When Hampshire bought the property at 175 Park Avenue in 2009, it was a 250,000-square-foot bunker. The developer enlisted Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) to make it a Class A facility (Hampshire declined to say how much the redevelopment cost). The building now has a gym, cafeteria, and conference room, although KPF only designed the lobby and exterior. Hampshire had worked with KPF before, transforming a bland office building in Iselin into the award-winning Centra at Metropark. “Renovations are very challenging. It’s a puzzle,” says Lloyd A. Sigal, KPF managing principal.
To bring in light in Madison, KPF cut out the building’s center, creating an entrance plaza with an expansive interior garden designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. And to recapture the lost square footage, the architects extended the side wings, making a 275,000-square-foot building with a glass façade. The two wings flank the central lobby and courtyard, creating a sense of openness and space.
The lobby, with 60-foot tall ceilings and 16 circular skylights, has a floating staircase suspended along the garden wall and cantilevered behind a hanging feature wall. The hanging wall, with a large circular cutout, is made of a white artisanal plaster that gives it a shimmering effect. From outside of the building, employees can be seen climbing the stairs and walking along the glass-clad balconies.
The tenant used Kimmerle Newman Architects to design the interior office wings, which have an open floor plan and views of the surrounding landscape. Realogy scrapped KPF’s design for a basement level cafeteria. Instead, that space is for executive parking. The cafeteria is on an upper floor.
Suburban office buildings have a punishing reputation, immortalized in movies like 1999’s Office Space and the acclaimed television show The Office. To combat the isolation, KPF designed gathering spaces. Rather than put the main entrance on a street where pedestrians rarely tread, the entrance greets the parking lot. With a granite staircase and a canopy supported by columns wrapped in fluted terracotta, the entrance draws employees inside.
“This is the front porch of the house. It brings people together,” says Hugh H. Trumbull, III, KPF design principal. “Essentially, the building reaches out to greet you.”
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