2008-12-11 / Front Page
Developer: Future of Lucent building in 'new urbanism'
Zucker says Somerset wants to work with community
HOLMDEL — The first time developer Ralph Zucker walked through the former Bell Labs building on Crawfords Corner Road he knew the Eero Saarinen-designed building could be revitalized for a new era by adapting it to a mix of pedestrian-friendly uses.
Zucker, a principal in Somerset Development, Lakewood, the contract-purchaser for the Alcatel-Lucent property that spans 472 acres of scenic land in the heart of Holmdel, said Somerset focuses on "place making" using a new urbanism approach.
"We build places for people to live," Zucker explained in a Dec. 3 walk- through of the building. "We see this building as a place to be, a town square in a sense, where people can go to jazz fests and view art displays. This place can be a great public realm."
New urbanism is defined as a neighborhood-centered design concept that incorporates traditional uses to promote community functions and livability.
"In the '50s and '60s, Americans started designing and building communities for the car," Zucker explained. "We were consumed with creating networks of highways and connecting one road to another, and the pedestrian was forgotten. New urbanism brings the focus back on foot traffic."
He said the vision for the tract includes implementing mixed use within the building itself and limiting residential housing units to the immediate area of the ring road that surrounds the massive 1.7 million-square-foot glass-enveloped building.
"We have discussed that we would be willing to limit development to the ring road and create public open space," Zucker said. "We understand that we can do nothing without the approval of this community, and we are focusing on condensing rather than spreading development all over this property."
Faced with an economy that has taken a downturn, Zucker said the developer remains optimistic about the concepts.
"No one can predict the economy, and that is why a mixed use is needed," he said. "One single use will doom this building. The worse the economy gets, the more rational it is to have a mixed use here. First of all, you will not find one tenant to populate most of the approximately 1.7 million square feet, and to think that in this economy you will find one of that size for office space is … you just can't."
When comparing the future for the former Bell Labs building to a nationally known mixed-use project, Zucker likened it to the AOL-Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
"It is a similar concept," Zucker said. "This is not going to be a mall. This is not going to be a strip mall. This will have connectivity and walkability."
Zucker said Somerset is strictly in a brainstorming phase, conjuring up concepts for uses and how to adapt a building that was built in phases over a span of almost four decades.
The mostly glass, steel and concrete structure is currently empty and is heated and cooled only slightly to prevent damage such as mold.
"When I first walked into this building, all I saw and envisioned were pedestrian walkways," Zucker said as he stood in the atrium area and looked down the expanse of the long corridors to his left and to his right. "Everything is here for us. Imagine this opened up with light coming all the way through to the center here. Whatever goes in above will have spectacular views of both the outside surroundings
and the inside.
"[Eero] Saarinen designed this building so people could walk. This building is different from a skyscraper because in a skyscraper you have to take an elevator everywhere. Here, you can walk around. If we are a little bit better and more creative, people will want to come here."
Zucker estimated the time it would take to get the project off the ground and that "a little bit of everything" would be implemented at first in order to market space.
"We would probably try to implement a little bit of everything to start, and I think it will take probably five to seven years just to convert the building, fix it to accommodate different uses, and populate it," Zucker said. "There are a lot of engineering challenges to overcome, and it is going to be very expensive."
"The positive financial impact this can have is phenomenal," Zucker said. "We have done a fiscal impact study and we continue to do studies that demonstrate the positive and negatives, but we are remaining confident that the positives outweigh the negatives."
Zucker said the company has an accurate figure of how much it will take to finance the redevelopment project, but is not ready to release that information.
"We do have an accurate number — we know what it will take, and it is a fortune," Zucker said. "But we aren't ready to release that number yet."
The building offers five floors of what is now mostly office and laboratory space. Sublevels of the building hold the essentials a building housing approximately 6,000 employees, such as an industrial-size kitchen, dining room and fitness center.
Zucker said that part of the allure was the building's design plan that allows total access to pedestrians.
"People can walk all over this building, and that is the way Saarinen designed it," he said. "A person can literally walk all around the perimeter of this building and by simply stepping into one of the rooms, they can walk along the [perimeter] of the inner atrium."
The main entrance, which faces Crawfords Corner Road, looks out across a pond and acres of wide-open space where deer and Canada geese now roam. Upon entry, there is a sunken pit, and a reception area with a waiting area with built-in seating.
Parallel to the main entrance and across the atrium is another wall of windows and similar entranceway and lobby area, which overlooks another pond and even more wide-open land.
Balconies line the entire length of each floor and overlook the reception areas and atrium with its two large planters that are flanked by massive banks of elevators. Smaller stone planters dot the floor plan where vines have become overgrown, spreading across the floors.
The side that faces Middletown Road, Zucker said, was a later addition and features glass elevators against a glass wall, offering even more unobstructed views and natural light that transforms the corridors into expansive dark caverns at night when the building is powered down.
Office upon office and laboratory upon laboratory create an inner ring of rooms around the inside of the building outline, only to be buffered from the exterior mirrored-glass walls with a continuous path that lines the perimeter of the building. On the other side of the ring of labs and offices is the open-air atrium area.
Saarinen designed the building in the early 1950s but died before the project's completion. The building was constructed in phases during the early 1960s and expanded in the late 1980s.
Now vacant except for a security guard, the building seems to be hibernating The once bustling and bright lab and office spaces are pitched into blackness when the sun goes down, with little to no light to illuminate the hundreds of paths through the four main sections and the building's basement, or "pillar."
"Down here," Zucker said excitedly, pointing a large flashlight as he descended a stoneslab stairway that led into the bowels of the building. "There is even more space in the basement. We call it the pillar because essentially, this is what the building sits on. Toward the front of the basement is space for underground parking and loading docks, and the back is down-gradient of the front so the glass walls give off quite a view."
The stairwell opens out to a lobby area that leads to an auditorium where Somerset held its first town hall-style meeting in late September, the company's first official introduction to the surrounding community.
Zucker said the building immediately struck a chord with him and does so with people who have never set foot inside before.
"People who just say 'knock it down' don't understand the building or the emotional impact and fiscal impact of knocking a building like this down," he said. "We want people to come in here and feel the excitement like we do. At the last meeting here, people were walking in and telling us they have never been inside the building before but they have lived here more than 20 years. It was really something to see people's reactions."
While Lucent occupied the building, the basement held a fitness center, auditorium, industrial kitchen and a large, banquet-style dining room.
Zucker shone the flashlight throughout the dining room.
"This could be quite the conference center, and look at the banquet hall, and just look at this," he said, aiming the flashlight out the back wall. The light illuminated a bucolic setting completewith a freeform pond and what was once an artfully designed landscaping. The flock of geese that have taken up residence in the ponds on the property simply stared back.
"So, we have all of this," Zucker said, motioning around, "to work with. This is why a mixed use is the only way. The rooms that were offices and laboratories could be hotel rooms or apartments. The top floor can house luxury penthouses while retail shops and cafés can line the bottom. Sections of this can be office space. Who wouldn't want to work here where there is lots of life?"
At a recent Township Committee meeting, township officials were critical of some of the concepts Somerset has proposed, specifically the number of housing units the concept includes, but Zucker stressed the fact that the company does not have any formal plans yet nor has it submitted any plans to the town.
"We did not submit any official plans to the town, but we did have an informal meeting where we shared information, conclusions and feedback," he said. "I am sorry it was misunderstood as our proposal, kind of like 'take it or leave it.'That's not where we are. We hope to continue moving forward with an open and honest dialogue and let the people judge our proposal when it is put forward."
The development company principal said that the team he and partner Rubin Schron have in place is top-of-the-line and they are confident in their ability to redevelop the property.
"We understand the flip side and we don't want to ruin the town, but we think we can do it right," Zucker said. "We think we can have our cake and eat it too, in a sense. Both sides can be happy."
Zucker said that Somerset will hold another forum at the former Bell Labs building to gather feedback from the community and share with residents some of the company's concepts for the project.
"We want residents to see it, to understand it and to feel it," he said. "As long as we can continue here, we plan to do another presentation. This time, I want to walk people through a bit more and share more."
Zucker's excitement about the project stems from his own journey through the real estate design industry.
"I needed a place to live and I bought a little two-bedroom house way back when, and I converted the garage into a living room and dining room and fixed the place up," he said. "I saw my understanding of space and I got involved with a suburban sprawl project."
Sprawl, for the developer who said he wants to minimize the company's footprint on the Alcatel-Lucent property, was not the answer.
"About 10 years ago I started questioning the inordinate amount of space we give the automobile," Zucker explained. "On vacations to places like Rome or Washington, D.C., or Princeton, I liked to walk, and sprawl just felt wrong. I learned about new urbanism and a project called Seaside in the panhandle of Florida, and I got involved."
Zucker said he and the rest of the team at Somerset Development became involved with a project located in Wood-Ridge in Bergen County called Westmont Station, a transit-oriented, mixed-use redevelopment of 70 acres around a New Jersey Transit station and the connection of the Bergen Line to Manhattan.
According to Zucker, the project is participating in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Green Building rating system. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and according to the USGBC Web site, is a third-party certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.
"Westmont has been a learning experience on the fly for us," Zucker said. "We had the help of Seaside [Florida] project managers and we employ some of the same professionals who worked on the community of Celebration in Florida."
Zucker explained what he said has been the company's departure from conventional suburban development.
"Initially our company was formed about 13 years ago and we did suburban subdivisions," Zucker said. "But because my interests tended to go in this direction, this is where we went. Sometimes we do subdivisions, but they are small communities that have elements like rear alleys and are similar to the pedestrian flows at Westmont."
In keeping with the commitment to smart growth, Zucker said the company has set a goal for the redevelopment of the Alcatel-Lucent property.
"We have set a benchmark that there will be no more of an impact on the surrounding area than when Lucent was here and at full capacity," Zucker said. "We may be able to do it with possibly, actually probably, significantly less traffic than Lucent."
Zucker said the development company has high expectations for the project and wants to continue to work with the community.
"I want to reiterate that this is too important to us, it is important to communicate, it is important to withhold judgment and work together," he said. "The town always has the right to say no, but we ask that people keep an open mind and listen and then pass judgment."