Monday, July 8, 2024

Quote of the Day (David Brooks, on Office Parks at the Turn of the Millennium)

“Office park buildings are five- to eight-floor layer cakes of tinted glass and composite stone. They have labor-unintensive flower arrangements out front and dwarf-trees inside their deserted lobbies. There are take-out cafes near the atrium, FedEx drop-off boxes just off the main driveway, and rows and rows of open parking. Airport shuttle vans cruise by throughout the day, and there's usually one of those suburban strip mall restaurants like Chi-Chi's or Outback Steak House a short drive down the road.

“Office parks are very quiet. There's no street life except for the huddles of smokers by the front doors. All the action is inside, among the scientists, the techies, and the entrepreneurs. Office parks represent the marriage of science and commerce, and the withering away of just about everything else. And when you hang around them, you sometimes wonder, what is this office-park culture doing to the American character?” —Conservative commentator David Brooks, “Our Founding Yuppie,” The Weekly Standard, October 23, 2000

Sometimes, you can’t help re-reading something from some years ago and wonder what happened in the interim. That was my sense when I came across David Brooks’ speculation about which Founding Father would feel most at home in suburban office parks.

Let me give you a hint: it’s in that phrase, “the marriage of science and commerce.” If you’re thinking of Ben Franklin as the Founding Father in question, you’d be correct.

But trends of the past two decades put paid to any notion that the office park indicated anything much about the changing American character. Nowadays, it looks less like an instinct towards bringing people together for work in the suburbs than a real-estate bubble reaching its zenith just when the market need for such space was outstripped by the rush toward this outlet for capital investment.

More or less starting in the early postwar period, the office park reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. But the rise of the computer and the Internet meant that sole-proprietor businesses, for instance, could function just as well at home as in a larger space outside, and COVID-19 left many of these corporate boxes empty.

We’re going to see whether the accelerating back-to-office movement picks up momentum. But my guess is that new environmental and demographic trends—some in only the barest of outlines at the moment—will mean that the office park (including several out here by me in New Jersey) will not flourish as it once did.

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