Fast Company Visits Bell Works & Discusses Vacant Office Parks
In the latter half of the 20th century, around 5,000 researchers and engineers went to work every day in suburban Holmdel, New Jersey, at Bell Labs, the research and design arm of AT&T. The work done in the lab became the foundation of modern electronic communication: It’s widely cited as the birthplace of the cell phone. But by the early 2000s, the communication technology that came out of the work in there had, ironically, made the workplace itself obsolete. Bell Labs’ focus on telecommunications essentially made remote work possible, and more and more employees opted to do so until the sprawling building was mostly empty. In 2007, Alcatel-Lucent, the company that had taken over Bell Labs from AT&T, shuttered operations at the 460-acre site.
For people in the town of Holmdel, the massive building threatened to become something of an albatross. Bustling with workers and producing cutting-edge innovations, Bell Labs generated around 25% of Holmdel’s taxes at its heyday–a not-insignificant figure, especially when you consider that the McMansion-filled suburb is one of New Jersey’s wealthiest enclaves. Now, it just took up space. The town of Holmdel searched for buyers, but tenants in need of 2 million square feet of space were now rare; across New Jersey and the rest of America, sprawling suburban corporate complexes were being abandoned at an alarming rate for remote work or more urban headquarters. Alcatel-Lucent was eyeing a deal with a developer who wanted to buy and demolish Bell Labs to build housing.
That option sparked international outcry. Eero Saarinen, the renowned midcentury modernist architect behind icons like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, designed the Bell Labs building, which opened a year after he passed away in 1961. The mirrored panels that line the entire exterior once led the Architectural Forum to christen the complex “The Biggest Mirror Ever,” and its listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance. Demolition wasn’t an option, so the first developer bowed out of sale.
Unable to be filled or torn down, Bell Labs seemed to taunt Holmdel. Until another developer Ralph Zucker, based in the nearby town of Lakewood, toured the building in 2008 and saw an opportunity; his company, Somerset Development, bought the property for $27 million from Alcatel-Lucent in 2013. Now he’s nearing completion of his vision: a walkable community hub smack in the middle of a quiet suburb–something he has termed a “metroburb.”
Now called Bell Works, the opaque laboratory walls of the old Bell Labs have largely been replaced with glass. Startups and companies like Santander Bank and the HR company iCIMS are set up in the office spaces on the upper floors (to access those, you need a pass to get by security, but the ground floor–the “main street” is open to the public). A sea of market-style tables line the central corridor the ground floor, which will house a food hall. The roof of the building will be transformed into a hotel; the basement into a conference center and ballroom. There’s a library and a daycare on one end of the vast hall; a fitness studio and a salon on the other. Paola Zamudio, head of the studio NPZ Style + Décor, has overseen much of the design of the public space, including what will become a small “urban park” in the right wing of the building, complete with below-lit trees an park benches.
“When I came in here first, it was cluttered with cubicles and garbage,” Zucker tells Fast Company as he stands inside the main hall, now nearly fully renovated to the tune of $200 million, and 70% leased. “You couldn’t really walk through the atrium,” he says, miming about a foot’s width of space. “But I saw pedestrian space.”