This story originally appeared on the website of our content partner, GlobeSt.com.
HOLMDEL TOWNSHIP, NJ—The $100 million redevelopment of the historic Bell Laboratories site in Holmdel Township, NJ is moving forward, some five years after Somerset Development decided to tackle the Empire State Building-sized project, renamed BellWorks.
Home to the Nobel Prize-winning physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who first discovered evidence of the “big bang” during research at the Bell Labs site, it is also the birthplace of the transistor, satellite telecommunications, touch-tone telephone dialing and cellular phones.
Bell Labs is “like Mecca or Jerusalem” to technology companies, says Somerset’s CEO Ralph Zucker, who recently took a GlobeSt.com reporter on an exclusive tour of BellWorks. Three of the first five leases in the facility are with technology firms, including the first actual move-in tenant, Symbolics, which has taken 42,000 square feet in the sprawling, two million square-foot complex.
You can watch a video news report about GlobeSt.com’s exclusive tour of BellWorks in the video player below.
Somerset acquired the 472-acre site from Alcatel/Lucent in 2009, and has spent years planning the mixed-use redevelopment of the site.
“We closed on the 14th amendment to the second contract,” says Zucker. “That was over five, almost six years. While that was going on, the challenge was to rezone the property. It took a while to gain the trust of the community, which I believe we did.”
It took years to persuade local officials that the property would be unmarketable unless the previous “single-occupant research facility” zoning was changed to accommodate multiple, mixed uses.
Somerset sold a portion of the land to Toll Brothers, which will be developing a residential component of 40 single-family homes and 185 age-restricted townhomes.
Now, with new zoning in place, Zucker and his team are moving forward with modern enhancements and amenities for the award-winning building. Designed in 1960 by Eero Saarinen, the legendary architect of the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the International Arrivals Terminal at JFK Airport in New York, the building’s glass curtain wall wrapped around four massive office towers.
In the Bell Labs era, those office towers were themselves completely enclosed in dry wall, making views of the outside inaccessible to the cubicle dwellers inside. Somerset is removing the exterior drywall of the towers and substituting large glass walls, giving office occupants dramatic views of the bucolic Holmdel setting.
“No question this new millennial generation is very technologically savvy and the working environment that they are most comfortable and productive in is an environment that is both collaborative and creative, supporting the spontaneity of the ‘idea generation’,” says Jeffrey Garibaldi, president of The Garibaldi Group, one of Somerset’s partners at BellWorks. “Buildings today need to provide for a full array of amenities that motivate and inspire productivity. The millennial workforce is mobile, impulsive and accessible 24/7 therefore a building environment needs to provide for this.”
The reimagined building will incorporate a 260-room hotel, retail shops and restaurants, and even the Holmdel Township Public Library, which is relocating into the complex. The building includes an existing 300-seat theater, enormous open atriums, industrial capacity kitchens, and an event space.
With the zoning and state regulatory hurdles behind him, Zucker says getting the facility leased up is “a bit of a chicken and egg” challenge. He says there is interest from a number of restaurants in leasing space, but they are holding back making commitments until office tenants are signed. Meanwhile, he says, office tenants are delaying signing leases until they know the restaurants will be in place.
“Like any complex multifaceted real estate endeavor, everybody has to buy in at the same time,” Zucker says. “That is happening now. We are negotiating leases on 600,000 square feet of just office space.” Healthcare tenants have signed letters of intent for about 180,000 square feet of space, he says, and signing of a health and wellness center with a rehabilitation medicine component is also imminent.