APP: How one man saved the historic site and made it a tech mecca
Investors, real estate agents, even his wife thought Ralph Zucker lost his marbles as he traveled around the state, telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to turn the abandoned Bell Labs building in Holmdel, N.J., into a powerhouse for the digital age.
Zucker understood their skepticism. At 2 million-square-feet, it was the size of the Empire State Building tipped on its side. And Bell Labs was falling apart.
The lobby was overgrown with plants. The quarter-mile-long roof was leaking. Waves of millennials were leaving the suburbs and heading to cities with the promise of exciting jobs and a much cooler lifestyle.
With the project’s reinvention price tag set at more than $200 million, they wished Zucker luck.
“Everybody sort of rolled their eyes, patted me on the back, offered me warm words of encouragement,” Zucker said. “And probably as soon as I turned my back, their eyes … I could just hear their eyeballs rolling to the back of their head and saying, ‘Boy, this is crazy.’ I could get nowhere. I got nowhere.”
A decade after Zucker took control of the property, his vision is fixed and focused. Bell Labs, the site of groundbreaking innovations from satellite communications to computer programming, is now called Bell Works, and it is finding new life.
Zucker’s quest to save the historic building from the scrap heap of history is the result of persistence and sheer luck. The past 10 years he navigated New Jersey’s notorious red tape; overcame anti-Semitic whispers; found an investor who owed his fortune to the place; and convinced chief executives from the Shore’s fast-growing technology companies to stay in New Jersey and move there.
On Nov. 20, fast-growing software company iCIMS will become its biggest tenant, moving 10 miles from Old Bridge with 650 employees to serve as an anchor and designs for hundreds more.