Looking for ‘city’ living in the suburbs? Some are finding it in ageing office parks

|     Katherine Shaver     |

FROM the rooftop terrace of their new townhouse, Keisuke and Idalia Yabe take in their suburban Maryland neighbourhood: a staid, 1970s-era office park of glass office buildings and concrete parking garages.

The Yabes say they have found the advantages of urban living in a shorter commute and the ability to walk to shopping centres and a park. They also have what feels like the best of suburbia – mature trees, plentiful parking, Bethesda’s sought-after schools and a more affordable mortgage.

From the Washington and New York suburbs to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, traditional corporate campuses that have struggled since the Great Recession are trying to transform from sterile worksites into vibrant mini-towns. In addition to housing, they’re adding restaurants, grocery stores, playgrounds and outdoor concert spaces – anything to draw people in and make them want to stay.

Although it might sound strange at first, the Yabes say, living in an office park feels convenient and even a bit hip.

“The location is ideal,” said Keisuke Yabe, 45, after returning from an evening walk with their seven-month-old daughter, Mela, just as the sun ducked behind a 14-storey office building.

Keisuke and Idalia Yabe, who bought a townhouse at Montgomery Row, a development in the Rock Spring Park office complex in North Bethesda, Maryland, sit on their rooftop with their daughter, Mela, and their dog. - PHOTOS: WP-BLOOM
Keisuke and Idalia Yabe, who bought a townhouse at Montgomery Row, a development in the Rock Spring Park office complex in North Bethesda, Maryland, sit on their rooftop with their daughter, Mela, and their dog. – PHOTOS: WP-BLOOM
Keisuke and Idalia Yabe walk their dog through the quiet office park in North Bethesda where they purchased a home
Keisuke and Idalia Yabe walk their dog through the quiet office park in North Bethesda where they purchased a home
The new development is inside the Rock Spring Park office complex, a 44-acre site that dates back to the 1970s
The new development is inside the Rock Spring Park office complex, a 44-acre site that dates back to the 1970s

“For me, if anything, it’s ‘Oh, this is pretty cool,’ ” said Idalia Yabe, 38. “I think the office setting makes it seem like we’re in a city a bit more and not as much in the suburbs.”

For many suburban business centres, attracting residents such as the Yabes is a matter of survival.

Once an elite address for companies fleeing downtowns, suburban office parks have grown increasingly obsolete as businesses have scaled back on office space or returned to transit-rich cities to attract young professionals. Those reachable only by car or bus have been hit particularly hard. In Rock Spring Park, where the Yabes live, the office vacancy rate has hovered around 22 per cent, compared with 15 per cent across the rest of Montgomery County.

Montgomery officials were caught off guard in 2015 when Marriott International, one of the county’s largest private employers, announced it would be moving its headquarters out of Rock Spring Park because it needed a more urban, transit-friendly area to attract younger workers. The company is building a new headquarters in downtown Bethesda, walkable to Metro and the planned light-rail Purple Line. When Marriott moves out, county planners say, Rock Spring’s vacancy rate could jump to 39 per cent.

Meanwhile, experts say, suburban office parks have plenty to offer residential developers. Many are close to major roads and near top-ranked public schools, and their sprawling campuses and vast parking lots provide land that has become increasingly scarce in lucrative areas.

“On the surface, suburban office parks don’t immediately suggest residential,” said Stockton Williams, a housing expert for the Urban Land Institute. “But they can be transformed. … It will take some creativity, but it’s certainly doable.”

Bob Geolas, a real estate economic development consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina, said suburban office parks can retool themselves for urban-loving companies and residents who are likely to want more space at more affordable prices as their staffs or families grow.

“We’re not going to tear down all those buildings, so how do you reimagine them?” said Geolas, former chief executive of the Research Triangle Foundation, which manages 7,000-acre Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. “I think it’s a real opportunity for the suburbs to make a hip comeback.”

EYA, the company developing the Yabes’ Montgomery Row complex, embraced Rock Spring’s corporate address, said McLean Quinn, an EYA vice president. In addition to Marriott, the office park includes Lockheed Martin, National Institutes of Health facilities and dozens of doctors’ offices.

Quinn said EYA saw potential in the office park’s network of sidewalks, walkable location near Westfield Montgomery Mall and two shopping centers, and proximity to in-demand schools. He said the townhouses are drawing younger families seeking a “move-up home” with more space than they could afford in the District of Columbia, as well as empty nesters downsizing from farther-out suburbs such as Potomac.

“It’s not directly on transit, but it’s very much a less suburban location than from where a lot of these folks are coming from,” he said. “For a lot of our folks, it’s very urban.”

The townhouses range from about $750,000 to $1 million, although some are priced at below-market rates under county requirements for “moderately priced” housing. Of the 168 homes, 89 have sold, Quinn said. – WP-BLOOM