Reworking the Business Park

By Kevin Gardiner, Principal Planner + Urban Designer at M-Group

In many cities the iconic single-use business park model is about to undergo a transformation. With increases in demand for well-located, well-designed office space, there has been growing pressure to redevelop aging office parks in close-in locations. However, the challenges are numerous. Developing additional office space can put pressures on already-stressed transportation infrastructure that was originally built to serve lower-scale auto-oriented development. Tenants are increasingly demanding an engaging mix of uses nearby to attract and retain top employees. The “transformed” business district will feature greater development intensities and a range of land uses, served by a range of creative and unorthodox transportation options.

In its report “The Urban Future of Work” SPUR outlines the changing nature of the workplace in the Bay Area. The report observes that while technology allows us to work remotely, the role of the office is becoming even more important. Companies are finding that they need the vibrancy and density of an urban-style environment in order to collaborate, innovate and stay competitive. And while the need for workplace collaboration is considered an aspect of technology and “knowledge services” companies, other types of businesses have found the similar needs to provide productive and interesting spaces for their staff to work together

The SPUR report makes the case that there is a strong link between density and job growth. SPUR believes that locating jobs closer to transit, and closer to one another, will be a key to the Bay Area long term economic growth. It contends that dense settings allow people to better share ideas and information, and thereby help stimulate new company creation and further economic growth. Density, walkability and public interaction will be favored for workplaces.

Some companies are choosing to locate in traditional downtowns, while others are re-creating these qualities by redesigning their suburban campus settings with greater density and more amenities. Lower-density office parks and corporate campuses, originally planned and built around automobile and highway access, are likely to slowly transform into denser work centers integrated with commercial and residential uses

Within the walls of the office building, most companies in the Bay Area have been making their spaces denser by reducing the size and number of offices and choosing smaller, more open workstations. For example, with its move to the former Sun Microsystems campus in Menlo Park, Facebook will accommodate 6,600 employees in a space that previously housed 3,400 (see diagrams below, courtesy SPUR). Facebook is not unique in this aspect; the density of employees per area of space is increasing overall. At the same time, more office floor area is being devoted to common areas and meeting spaces that allow collaboration.

While office interiors continue to evolve, the space outside these buildings is also changing. The single-use office campus is being replaced with a more urban-style environment with a variety of activities and experiences for employees to engage in. This type of environment is intended to increase the energy of workforce, and is also considered an effective strategy for attracting and retaining top employees. Employees who have a choice of where to work are increasingly choosing to work in interesting, varied environments.

Given the impetus to increase office density, how will all of these people get to work? Although some companies are locating in downtowns that are served by transit, others are locating in suburban campuses that were not originally designed to be served by transit. In some locations traffic is already a constraint at commute times, so it seems counterintuitive to add more employment density in these areas.

Serving suburban job centers in already congested areas will require creative solutions, yet the increased employment density itself enables some of those solutions. It is difficult for transit to effectively serve a spread-out, low-density office campus because the numbers of potential riders are too low and the distances they are dispersed too high for transit to run efficiently at any kind of frequency. In a paradox, if the transit is not effective, people will choose to drive. Or worse yet, if the transit is ineffective and the commute traffic is formidable, employees who have the choice will choose to work elsewhere. Finding solutions for getting people to work is a critical issue for employers.

There are models for how to get people to their jobs while minimizing traffic. For example, Stanford University is able to get half of its employees to work without driving by providing free Caltrain passes, a comprehensive campus shuttle system, taxi rides at night and extra health benefits. Other Silicon Valley employers are able to achieve equally impressive reductions in driving rates by providing employee shuttles. In the East Bay, both Contra Costa Centre (the area around the Pleasant Hill BART station) and Hacienda Business Park (south of the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station) have been able to achieve a 30 percent rate of employees who do not drive alone to work. The advantages to employers are two-fold: both traffic congestion and number of parking spaces that would otherwise need to be provided can be reduced.

What will these places look like? There are some local examples that give us some hints:

  • Mission Bay in San Francisco (including the UCSF campus) provides an example of offices with floorplates comparable to suburban business parks, but in an urban setting. Sidewalks are oriented to pedestrians, there are provisions for bicycles and scooters, and there are several transit options including light rail and employer shuttles. There is also a network of distinctive, urban open spaces that serve to define the character of the area.
  • Park Place at Bay Meadows in San Mateo includes several large office complexes mixed together with community retail and housing. Like Mission Bay, open spaces provide amenities and character. It is served by the Hillsdale Caltrain station.
  • Contra Costa Centre in Pleasant Hill includes a range of offices, housing, and supporting retail. The development began a few decades ago and earlier projects followed suburban prototypes of the time, but nevertheless are within walking distance of the Pleasant Hill BART station. The newer residential and retail development is more urban in character, with pedestrian-oriented streets and open spaces.

There will be both near- and long-term aspects to this evolution. In the near-term, the increased number of employees per square foot of office space will require creative transportation solutions such as shuttles just to make it work. This in turn will make more substantial transportation investment more feasible, such as developing new transit lines and increasing the frequency of existing lines. Future office development can then take advantage of these investments, and over time offices will increasingly locate in denser, dynamic environments. It will represent a fundamental shift in the places we work, and how we get there.