2009-03-26 / Front Page

Expert calls report on future of Bell Labs site 'suspect.'

BY ERIN O. STATTEL Staff Writer

A recent report that advised the demolition of the former Bell Labs building in Holmdel is drawing criticism from stakeholders and observers of the site's redevelopment.

ADRIAN SCOTT FINE The future of the Bell Labs building is uncertain due to plans to redevelop the site in Holmdel.
"The report raises as many questions as it attempts to answer," said Michael Calafati, chairman of AIA New Jersey's Historic Resources Committee and a member of the coalition of groups trying to save the former Bell Labs building. "I am suspicious as to why no attention was paid to the scores of professionals who met last April to come up with ideas for preserving this structure."

Calafati's suspicions arise from the 10- page report prepared by Reva Partners, which advises demolishing the Eero Saarinen-designed, 2 million-square-foot building.

"Given the costs of retrofitting the existing building, we recommend that the existing structure be demolished at the current property owner's expense if the property is to be conveyed to the township," the report states. "We also recommend that any existing environmental concerns within the building and on the site be remediated by the existing property owner as well."

Last April, architects, engineers and designers were invited to a design charrette held at the Bell Labs building and the Holmdel Township Senior/Community Center.

Organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, New Jersey Chapter; Preservation New Jersey; DOCOMOMO - N.Y./tristate chapter; and representatives from the Urban Planning and Policy Development Program at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, sponsored the charrette.

Calafati called the Reva Partners report "suspect."

"The report promotes an approach to land use that is clearly out of step with the times," he said. "This report is suspect, and, if I did not know its genesis, I would assume a developer presented it. This report was prepared in a vacuum."

The report lists a range of uses for the 473-acre tract that is on Crawfords Corner Road adjacent to Roberts and Middletown roads.

Among those uses are: a private 18-hole golf course; private homes buffering the golf course on 4 to 5 acres marketed at approximately $2 million to $3 million; 150 age-restricted detached homes; a state-of-the-art equestrian center; a movie studio; trailways that could be used for running, jogging, walking or biking along the Ramanessin Brook.

According to township officials, the report was commissioned as a way for the town to look at different possibilities for the property.

The property is pending sale to contractpurchaser Somerset Development, of Lakewood, said Alcatel-Lucent spokeswoman Mary Ward.

"We are still in a contract and the agreement has been extended," Ward confirmed in a March 19 telephone interview.

Ward also said that the technology company had no comment on Somerset's proposal or the Reva Partners report.

Ralph Zucker, principal of Somerset, has presented the company's vision for the site to the community, proposing to save the building for a mixed-use site by infusing retail, restaurants, office and convention center space with residential components to create what he describes as "a destination."

The development company also vowed to limit development on the site, proposing approximately 600 condominiums and townhouse units along the property's ring road and the access road from Robert's Road.

"We have read and reviewed Reva Partners' report. Certainly, its findings are not in line with our vision for the future of this property, as we are approaching this redevelopmentwith a preservationist and place-making perspective," Zucker stated in a March 18

email. "However, even if the building's preservation is not a concern, we do not understand the economic viability of the Reva

report's recommendations. We need more information to be able to properly understand the fiscal and environmental impacts of this report. While its goals may be appealing to some, the question remains as to whether the taxpayers are willing to pay for this."

According to Reva Partners Principal Beth Gorin, she and partner Steve Monetti "met with several citizens from the township, including the co-chairs of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Lucent Property along with the entire Holmdel Township governing body."

"My partner and I made tours of the Holmdel community and the Lucent facility," Gorin explained in an earlier email. "Based on our experience, recommendations by the citizens and governing body, we formulated our report on the knowledge we received and our additional input."

Gorin said that Reva Partners is a consulting company that works with both the public and private sectors on economic development, development and redevelopment projects along with marketing and government relations.

Somerset Development is not the only party convinced of the former Bell Labs building's viability for future uses.

Calafati described preserving and reusing the glass and steel building as one of the "greenest" ways to approach the site.

"There is no mention of recycling that building, which is the greenest response to reuse of the building," Calafati said. "Lead paint and asbestos removal is standard on buildings built in the '60s."

Calafati also pointed out that the report continually omitted the name Bell Labs in favor of the Alcatel-Lucent or Lucent building.

"That site gained notoriety as it was called Bell Labs," he said. "The building itself is unique and not just another office building from the '60s."

Among the building's innovations for its time, Calafati said that the use of a mirrored curtain wall was ingenious.

"That building is extraordinary because of its sheer size, because it is the first example of a mirrored curtain wall, which we see in corporate offices everywhere now, and it is ingenious because of its layout and size it lends to research rooms and laboratories," he explained. "That building also fostered cellular communication research, and its sheer size is impressive."

Calafati called Saarinen's work "art."

"He was thoroughly American in his design, and architecture is one of the most public of arts," he said. "In order to evaluate a piece of art, one must understand the context in which it was built. People who say this building is not important cannot understand the context in which this building was built."

Calafati, who is also on the board of trustees of the Monmouth County Historical Association, said that the Bell Labs building is one of Monmouth County's greatest historical structures.

"Monmouth County has a great continuumof past and present architecture, and this building is one of the greatest buildings of the post-World War II era," he said. "There is a deep-rooted resentment and unwillingness to acknowledge this site as a cultural, state and national landmark. New Jersey is not only important because of its place within the RevolutionaryWar but because of its continuum of history. There is no reason this building can't be reused."

According to Calafati, the coalition of preservationists has no immediate plans regarding the building's preservation, but is keeping a close watch on its progress.

"We are still active and are monitoring the plans that come in for that site," Calafati said. "We have a commitment to seeing that building preserved."

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