From the NY Times:
Decades before the first smartphone, researchers at Bell Labs in central New Jersey developed the technology that ushered in the digital age.
Now, the building that is as magnificent in its design as the discoveries that were made here will have another chapter in its storied life.
Late last month, Somerset Development bought the mirrored glass building, completed in 1962, and its pastoral grounds from Alcatel-Lucent for $27 million after the Township of Holmdel approved an ambitious redevelopment proposal that includes plans for a health care center, residences, a hotel and retail space.
While the sale ends a protracted debate over the fate of the vacant structure, set on 473 acres in a wealthy rural community, filling 1.9 million square feet of space may prove difficult. New Jersey is saturated with aging office parks like this one, where geese roam an empty ring road and old signs still eerily point to vacant parking lots overgrown with weeds.
The work once done in Bell Labs helped to foster this new era. James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, pointed to the advancements that have allowed employees to work remotely. “When the iPhone came out and then the iPad, workers became untethered,” Mr. Hughes said. “They don’t need the office workplace umbilical cord anymore.”
Somerset has enlisted an architect, Alexander Gorlin, to help overcome that hurdle by lining the building’s striking five-story, quarter-mile-long atrium with urban amenities, so that an office worker on an upper floor can walk downstairs to a coffee shop, restaurant or bank. But the building needs a critical mass of commercial tenants to support that retail presence.
“It’s a very difficult building for adaptive reuse,” said Suzanne Macnow, a broker for CBRE. “It’s set up with this gigantic center area, like the Mall of America in Minneapolis. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
The building was designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the T.W.A. building at Kennedy Airport.
Signs of decay at the mammoth building are quite visible — plastic buckets catch water leaking from the glass roof under which scientists developed satellite communications. In 2007, Preservation New Jersey listed the building as one of the state’s top 10 most endangered historical properties.
“Personally, I find it difficult to drive by it and see it abandoned. I worked there. My friends worked there,” said Janet Jackel, a physicist who worked at Bell Labs. “You see it as representing the American forward-looking attitudes of the last century, and that’s all been abandoned.”
The redevelopment plan, which would cost well over $100 million, could transform the former Bell Labs building into a commercial center for Holmdel, a community of about 17,000 people. With no downtown, most of the town’s retail properties now sit along busy Route 35.