In the 1980s, when all the corporate parks and all the office buildings went up along Route 1, cubicle farm futures in the ’burbs were a sure investment. Even with the tenant drought of the early 1990s there was no long-term shortage of bodies to fill office space in places like West Windsor, Plainsboro, and the Brunswicks.
Then the Internet happened, among other things, and these once-contemporary corporate parks that had symbolized jobs and growth now look about as contemporary as the house the Brady Bunch built. Yes, these place are still occupied to varying degrees, but they are under-tenanted relics of an age before instant messaging, when “telecommuting” was just a concept and not a reality embraced by many companies.
Michael McGuinness, CEO of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Office and Industrial Parks in New Brunswick, has been watching this shift in attitudes and technology and sees a complicated answer to the question of what to do with these aging, underpopulated business centers. Revitalizing them is possible, he says, but municipalities are going to have to make some bold moves.
McGuinness will join nearly a dozen policy and planning experts as part of the New Jersey League of Municipalities’ “Reinventing New Jersey’s Obsolete Suburban Office Campus” conference on Friday, July 12, at 8:30 a.m. at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Cost: $25. Visit www.njlmef.org or call 609-695-3481, ext. 111.
McGuinness grew up in Nutley, which he describes as a textbook commuter town near the amenities of New York City. His father spent 44 years teaching math at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. McGuinness earned his bachelor’s in biology from Saint Peter’s College in 1977 and his master’s in environmental and forest science from Yale in 1982.
He served as acting director for Governor Christie Whitman’s Office of the Business Ombudsman, which was designed to help businesses deal more efficiently with state regulations. He wrote several articles and reports on business and policy before joining NAIOP-NJ in 1997. He was recently asked to chair the Economic Competitiveness Committee for the North Jersey Sustainable Communities Consortium and served on the New Jersey Commerce and Economic Growth Commission from 2002 to 2004. One of five children, he now lives in Hamilton with his wife, Susan, and their three children.
It’s the demographics. Since 1997 McGuinness has seen a definite demographic shift in the areas where so many of those aging office/corporate parks were built. These parks typically spill into the suburbs, and when they were erected, people came and the population increased. But “young folks are not settling into the suburbs,” McGuinness says. Today’s young workforce, raised on technology and different ideas than their parents about what work and life are all about, want to live where the action is. Cities. Communities with transportation options, restaurants, amenities, and night life.
So could these empty and half-empty office parks be converted to thriving town centers, or at least new hubs around which to build self-contained, bustling communities? Absolutely, McGuinness says. If we can get out of our own way.
Too Many Towns. “New Jersey is facing an aging crisis of all sorts,” McGuinness says. The roads, the power supply, the government, the workforce, and the way of financing state operations are all outdated. So, he says, is the attachment to autonomy shared by the 565 municipalities in the state. Each one does its own thing, regardless of population size, which creates duplication of services and wastes money.
This autonomy also creates fiefdoms, McGuinness says. One town cannot do something without its neighbor raising hell, and individual towns rarely want to do what the neighbors do because then their identities would just blend into one homogeneous blur. McGuinness contends that fewer municipalities and more attention to regional planning can allow for new ways of thinking about the rows of corporate parks that follow major arteries like Route 1.
A main stumbling block is that towns are reluctant to embrace new multi-family development, McGuinness says. And part of that is, they don’t seem to understand the probable buyers — young people. The people who want to live where there are things to do and people around. Millennials, he says, do not want to hide from crowds in the suburbs; they want an urban lifestyle. “We need to get towns to think with a younger mindset,” he says. “No young person wants to live out in Hopewell.”
Drink up! Tacit within the word “amenities” is alcohol. People like going out to drink with friends. The trouble, McGuinness says, is that the state’s archaic liquor license laws make it difficult for New Jersey to compete with other states, such as Maryland or Massachusetts, that make it far easier for establishments to get liquor licenses and, thus, increase the amount of areas with such amenities.
Years ago, New Jersey issued a set number of liquor licenses as the limit across the state. This has never been changed, and consequently when an establishment with a liquor license closes, the result is a bidding war that drives up the prices of these licenses to prohibitive amounts. “In north Jersey I’ve seen them go for more than a million,” McGuinness says. Middle-range is about $200,000. By contrast, in Baltimore, an annual liquor license fee is $2,500.
McGuinness would like to see much looser liquor licensing regulations and assurance that the license would stay with the premises when a business closes.
McGuinness does hold out hope that the younger generations will shepherd these issues through as times and attitudes evolve. Younger people, he says, care far less about whether there is a Bordentown City and a Bordentown Township, for example, and would rather there be more efficient, less expensive infrastructure.
New Jersey, he says, is too costly for many young people to establish themselves here. Other states are winning because they see the future by taking a good look at the present, instead of the past.