The businesses of the Route 1 corridor may be on the cutting edge of their fields, but most of the work is being done in buildings from the 1990s or 1980s. Much of the commercial real estate space dates back to that era, starting with the master-planned Carnegie Center, which was ahead of its time when the first buildings were constructed in 1981.
More than three decades later, the complex, and others like it, have been well maintained but are showing their age in their Reagan-era design sensibilities. Many of these older office buildings are undergoing radical renovations in order to remain competitive with hipper buildings, and architect Joshua Zinder of Nassau Street-based JZA+D is among the designers attempting to breathe new life into these spaces.
Owners of commercial properties are vying to attract tenants who are in turn vying to attract a young workforce that, according to some studies, prefers to work in cities to big suburban office complexes, which often come with a long commute and a lack of nearby amenities such as restaurants.
Zinder believes that amenity spaces can go a long way to helping old offices attract young workers. “Even if the millennial-urban connection is a little bit blown out of proportion, and I’m not sure if it is or if it isn’t, I think certainly building amenity spaces, which is what we did with Boston Properties, allowed them to fill their buildings and bring in higher rents than what some of their competitors were getting.”
JZA+D has done dozens of renovations up and down the Route 1 corridor, including four newly renovated ’80s office buildings — 101 Carnegie Center, 506 Carnegie Center, 989 Lenox Drive, and 1009 Lenox Drive. He explains how he redesigned the interior spaces to make them more attractive and functional.
Zinder grew up on Long Island, where his father was a lawyer and a businessman and his mother a homemaker. A graduate of Syracuse University (1991) and Columbia (1992), Zinder was working for Michael Graves in 2006 when he decided to strike out on his own. His first project was for celebrity chef Charlie Trotter, who was opening a restaurant in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Graves had turned down the project, but he passed it along to his former employee, jump-starting the young business. (U.S. 1, February 13, 2008).
Since then Zinder has continued designing buildings all over the country but has also made a mark on the Route 1 landscape. His work ranges from the quirky Despana restaurant on Nassau Street to the functional office spaces of Antares Pharma, FMC, Heartland Payment Systems, Taiho Pharmaceuticals, and many other companies.
101 Carnegie Center: When Boston Properties hired Zinder to redesign 101 Carnegie Center, the first building in the entire office park, it wanted more than just a facelift for the building. Still, the first changes that a visitor notices to the recently redone building are cosmetic ones.
“The biggest issue they had was that the property felt dated to the late ’80s, early ’90s,” Zinder says. The lobby of the building is a three-story atrium with a glass entryway extending all the way to the top. The main lighting was on the ceiling of the building, far from the floor. The walls were lined with the same bricks that cover the outside of the building.
“Even though it was large and open, it felt very dark and weighted,” Zinder says. “The reality is that it’s an open three-story space, and it should have a feeling of openness and brightness.”
Fixing that problem started with the lighting. Rather than have just lights on the ceiling, Zinder hung light fixtures at different levels, bringing the light closer to the ground. The fixtures are also more energy efficient than their predecessors. The brick walls were replaced with white panels, accented with strips of cherry wood that resemble raindrops, in a pattern that echoes both the light fixtures and the similarly brightened-up floor, which is white tile that resembles wood, with gray accents.
Mechanical elements were hidden away. On the ceiling, two-by-two registers were replaced by narrow linear registers that are more energy efficient and hard to spot with the untrained eye.
After the lobby was done, Zinder moved on to the lower level of the building, where an even bigger challenge awaited: the cafe.
Here Zinder wanted to do more than just improve the looks, though that was also a priority. “It was very, very red,” he says. The old cafe was like a traditional cafeteria, with a line and a register at the end. “It did a lot, but it didn’t operate as well as they wanted it to,” Zinder says. For example, employees would sometimes order lunches but be unable to get to the cafeteria to collect them in time to eat.
There was an architectural solution to this cafeteria problem: a kiosk that functioned as a coffee stand, which could be opened late into the afternoon and where lunches could be picked up and paid for. The Starbucks-branded kiosk is now an additional selling point.
Zinder added a cooking station at the center of the room, where different daily dishes can be prepared, like farm-to-table lunches, salads, or other specials. He also added varied kinds of seating, with some lower and some higher seats available. The cafeteria is behind glass doors now, for a more airy feel, and the neutral color scheme is more natural, relaxing, and modern than the Chuck-E-Cheese red of the previous version.
“It’s a more dynamic environment for meeting and eating,” Zinder says.
The cafeteria is visible from the ground-floor atrium, and the “raindrop” pattern of wood dashes continues down into the cafe, creating visual continuity between the two spaces. The wall is lined with photos of iconic locations in downtown Princeton.
From the cafe a long corridor leads down to one of the major perks of the space: a fitness center. The facility is lined with glass windows decorated with half-toned photos of athletes. Inside there are banks of treadmills that one might expect to find in a corporate gym, but also free weights for employees who want to do serious bodybuilding on their lunch breaks.
“A lot of people have a hard time attracting young people to come to work for them, and millennials, Generation Z, and I think people in general seem to like these kinds of amenities,” Zinder says of the gym. “They don’t want to be out in a corporate desert where they are just in a cube all day.”
Across from the gym there is a yoga studio and a massage room.
It took some clever design work to create the space for all those rooms. Before Zinder’s redesign much of the space was occupied by a storage room, computer rooms for an old tenant, and a large electrical room. Zinder realized the electrical room could be cut in half and gained some space that way. “You have to look at that kind of thing for potential opportunities,” he said. “People look at mechanical rooms and electrical rooms and automatically think they can’t touch it.” After the owner gave up the space occupied by the former tenant’s computer room, there was enough space left for the luxurious fitness facilities.
As a result Zinder says that 101 Carnegie Center is not just competing with newer buildings. “I think that the way the space is right now, people are competing with us, not the other way around.”
506 Carnegie Center: At nearby 506 Carnegie Center, Zinder’s job was to renovate the lobby as well as the building’s old-school cafeteria.
“It was very dated,” Zinder says. “A true corporate cafeteria.” Although the cafeteria was inside quite a large room, part of it was walled off, creating a “squished” sense of space.
In renovating the cafeteria, Zinder left nothing untouched. He tore down the wall separating the lunch counter from the dining room and gave it an upgraded kitchen to serve a more appealing menu. The dining room includes multiple types of seating, including a carpeted area with couches and comfortable chairs for a “lounge” atmosphere, diner-style banquette seats, and booths.
To make the space feel connected to the courtyard outside, Zinder put wooden trellises on the ceiling to match the ones on the covered walkways outside. The redesign added a multipurpose bar on the inside of the cafeteria and on the outside, a gazebo with grills for barbecuing, complete with a keggerator for beer-centric events.
Finishing touches include steel accents and a “living wall” piece of artwork with plants growing from a stone wall.
“If you come here at lunch the place is packed,” Zinder says.
1009 and 989 Lenox Drive: On Lenox Drive, just off Princeton Pike, Zinder revamped several old office buildings. At 1009 he modified the late-1980s lobby to have a more airy feel, replacing heavy masonry with glass. The old lobby was dark, unwelcoming, and “looked like the Four Seasons,” Zinder says. Now it has a more Madison Avenue style, with large porcelain tiles that look like marble lining the walls.
The building at 989 Lenox Drive needed even more dramatic changes. To start with Zinder remedied a navigation problem at the building: people were confused by its four entrances, all of which looked identical, so he gave each one a unique colored canopy. He added long handicapped ramps on shallow enough angles that they don’t require handrails and can blend into the landscape.
Inside the atrium resembled a suburban shopping mall. “The space felt like 1988 had exploded all over it,” Zinder says. A walkway cut through the three-story atrium, but there was no way to get directly from the walkway down to the floor, where the cafeteria was located.
Zinder got rid of the 1980s decorating touches and added a staircase down to the bottom floor. He installed a waterfall as a main point of interest.
An additional problem was one of scale: visitors felt dwarfed by the vast open space of the atrium. “The space felt immense,” he says of the 6,000-square-foot room. To make the space feel warmer and more human scale, he built a large wooden structure rising from the floor, overhanging part of the walkway.
Did it work? The renovation strategy seems to have paid off for Boston Properties, which has kept its buildings in Carnegie Center in high demand even as companies gravitate to more urban workspaces. By bringing some of the city’s amenities to the suburbs, they seem to have extended the life of the suburban workplace.
Zinder says the renovation was a major reason that Boston Properties was able to sign long-term leases with its tenants. “In this case, the drawings that we did helped attract tenants before the space was even finished,” Zinder says. “The building is almost 100 percent filled, and this is a large part of it.”
Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design LLC (JZA+D), 20 Nassau Street, Suite 25, Princeton 08540, 609-924-5004. Joshua B. Zinder, principal. www.joshuazinder.com.