If you’re looking for one of the finest restaurants in town, one of the coolest bars around, or the most coveted yoga classes in the area, there’s a good chance you’ll find all three at a top-notch hotel. The offerings at the successful lodging destinations serve as powerful magnets, drawing together the people who stay there, work there, and live in the area.
Mimicking the hospitality industry’s ability to attract and unify different groups at one location was the inspiration behind The Park, a mixed-use campus in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. The long time owner of the property is the family-owned and operated firm The Connell Company. The 185-acre property that started out as a suburban office park known as Connell Corporate Center is continuing its evolution with the goal of serving not just as a live-work-play destination but also as a town center of sorts that merges the corporate sector with the local community to create a social infrastructure.
Suburban offices have always been synonymous with sprawling complexes that offer little more than parking and the occasional sandwich shop. But that depiction quickly evaporated over the last several years as office owners realized that in the suburbs, the office or “work” segment of a complex will struggle to survive without the “live” and “play” elements. The legacy office campus has to evolve to continue to be relevant. “This is obviously a case-by-case basis, but overall, suburban legacy office parks will have to evolve into mixed-use destinations in order to survive,” said Richard Jantz, executive managing director with Cushman & Wakefield. “There have been great strides in the reality of converting these assets to a steadier income-producing position.”
The Connell Company developed its Berkeley Heights office campus in the 1980s and has operated it ever since. Not too long ago the team realized that the traditional office campus was not a viable concept for the long term. So, in the last few years, they have added a hotel, residential apartments, and retail to complement The Park’s 1.5 million square feet of office space.
They also realized that the mixed-use office campus in suburbia could use something extra, a place for the neighboring community to come and visit. Space planners call this “third space,” they have become much less common in many cities as they densify. They have also become more important as technology increasingly replaced in-person social interaction. “Loneliness is a real thing, social disconnection is a real thing, so we considered how we could create a social infrastructure to support office users, residences, and the public in the surrounding community,” said Shane Connell, co-owner of The Connell Company and Executive Vice President of The Park. “Our plan is to make The Park the third place and drive it with experiential uses that will attract the local community to the campus, then also offer huge amenities to attract people to want to work here or live here.”
In crafting the new concept for The Park, The Connell Company looked at what college campuses have for amenities, including wellness, fitness, and social options. Additionally, they took note of how urban centers connect public and private uses. One of the products of the research is the social club concept. They built a co-working space and social club open for membership to tenants, employees, and the public. In addition to office space options, the 40,000-square-foot co-working site give members with a curated experience involving wellness offerings ranging from nutritionists to a health-centric restaurant and bar. The Park takes office programming to a whole new level. The campus has a CFO, a chief fun officer who spearheads the activation of the property with guest speakers, game nights, happy hours, fitness classes, book clubs, and other activities for both workers and the general public.
The latest expansion project at The Park, The District, will offer more of, well, everything. The District will deliver five new buildings encompassing more than 300 multifamily units and 190,000 square feet of retail, restaurant, and entertainment space, including a brewery with a beer garden, a pickleball sports concept, outdoor trails, pocket parks, and dog parks. The District is designed to be a social destination for the public and a source of entertainment for tenants.
The Park is about elevating the suburb it sits in, rather than alienating itself from it. “We looked at what is really great about a city environment and tried to bring that to the suburbs, and what is really great about the city is public parks, mixed uses, and creating a 15-minute neighborhood so that anything that you want during the day is within walking or biking distance,” Connell explained. The entire combination of offerings is designed to accommodate community members as well as employers who are relying on amenities to help attract workers back to the office.
Something is working. The Park is 99 percent leased. Connell expects to complete the development of The District phase of The Park in 2025. From the first four office buildings that sprouted up in the 1980s to the last structure to be erected as part of The District, The Park will constitute an aggregate investment of approximately $500 million.
The traditional suburban office campus, large office buildings surrounded by nothing but parking, are fast becoming a thing of the past. So owners of these properties are transitioning to mixed-use complexes. The Park is a great example. It is built as a city within a city, where office dwellers, residents, and the surrounding community members have a host of amenities to make them want to visit. Overall, the national office market continues to struggle, but thanks to pandemic induced flight from many cities, suburban areas seem to be doing better than their center city counterparts. The question remains of whether or not the suburbs will continue to be as popular. People might be moving back to big cities, but local housing options, public spaces, and thoughtful programming might help suburbs continue to attract residents and office tenants.