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OP-ED | What To Do With Connecticut’s Aging Office Campuses And Malls

by Terry D. Cowgill | Dec 13, 2013 6:29am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired

It’s a problem that won’t go away anytime soon. As Connecticut tries to right its economy and reinvent itself as a friendly place to do business, the state is also grappling with what to do with structural vestiges from a different economic era.

Several decades ago, it was the mills. Once those manufacturing jobs became obsolete, or were moved either to southern states or overseas, corporations and towns had to find suitable uses for the hulking structures. Some towns, such as Beacon Falls, have done a commendable job converting them into living space. Others, such as Torrington and Winsted, have been less successful at finding uses for the abandoned mills.

Now we can add to that list of obsolete structures. Those sprawling corporate office campuses that have sprung up since the mills died are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, as The Courant’s Ken Gosselin documented recently.

Chief among them is The Hartford’s 641,000-square-foot office building set on 173-acres in Simsbury. The sheer size of the anachronistic campus is staggering: it’s as big as four Wal-Mart supercenters and the square footage is half that of the Chrysler building in Manhattan. Sadly, the venerable insurance company is in a cost-cutting mode (who isn’t these days?) and has put the campus on the block.

To give you an idea of the economic impact such a facility has on a relatively small town like Simsbury, The Hartford pays $1.6 million a year in property taxes to a town that has an $83 million budget. The Hartford employs almost half of Simbury’s 3,315-person workforce at an annual expense to the company of $8 million per year. Perhaps shockingly, the Simsbury campus opened in 1984 at a cost of $50 million, which gives you an idea of how quickly the market for office space can change.

And there are numerous other examples cited by Gosselin. Aetna couldn’t find a use for its 1.3-million-square-foot campus in Middletown and so demolished it in 2011. The resulting vacant lot remains for sale.

Pfizer is demolishing a 750,000-square-foot research center in Groton. The town of Ridgefield bought the shuttered the Schlumberger-Doll Research Center in 2011 for $7 million, but hasn’t been able to do much with it and is trying to flip the property.

To be sure, there are some exceptions to the trend. The architecturally distinguished Union Carbide campus in Danbury was successfully sold for half its construction price in 2007, despite being in a state of flux for much of its existence. And a new research center is being opened in Farmington. But the state had to bribe Jackson Laboratories to the tune of $291 million in borrowed money to get the company to make the move from Maine to Connecticut.

In addition to the general downsizing trend, a variety of factors is contributing to the decline of these sprawling corporate behemoths. Telecommuting has become more commonplace and has reduced the demand for office space. And technological advances have obviated the need for the legions of workers who performed time- and space-consuming data entry tasks.

But suburban corporate headquarters aren’t the only endangered species in the neighborhood. Online shopping has hurt the bottom line of shopping malls. As recently as 1990, 19 shopping malls were built in America. But there hasn’t been new one built since 2006.

The more upscale malls such as Westfarms are doing fine but mid-market affairs like Buckland Hills are having a tougher time maintaining market share, researcher Ryan Severino told John Dankosky on WNPR.

So what do we do with these monstrosities once they’re no longer useful? Perhaps the best suggestion came from a caller to Dankosky’s show who owns a farm near Buckland Hills. Downsize the malls to one floor and convert the top floor to affordable housing for the mall workers, many of whom toil away at little more than minimum wage.

Perhaps the same could be done to some of these empty corporate hulks. Mixed-use residential and retail might be just the tonic needed to bring back a sense of community in some of our fragmented suburbs.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(10) Comments

posted by: shocked | December 13, 2013  12:55pm

I think there is a definition problem here.  This is not a social problem requiring govt.  If XYZ company has a useless building it is XYZs problem, not “ours”. 

“So what do we do with these monstrosities once they’re no longer useful?”  Umm ask their owners.  Who is the “WE” you refer to?

posted by: JamesBronsdon | December 13, 2013  2:13pm

The “we” aspect might go to the residents and planning/zoning boards whose approval might be necessary for the zoning changes necessary to allow such changes. The owners can’t dictate that. Their needs to be some social consensus.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | December 13, 2013  2:24pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Well, it becomes “our” problem when it sits idle, does not produce much in the way of tax revenues, or goes into foreclosure, or becomes blighted. Remedying all those problems requires government action, no?

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | December 13, 2013  5:06pm

As a Simsbury Resident the absolute incompetence of our Political leadership in encouraging any type of business is clear.  But the problem with obsolete buildings is not new nor is it without answers.  Only in New England where changing anything is taboo is this a problem.  You tear down the old building and encourage someone to buy the land for a new business use.  The old mills were there for the hydropower and the sites are absolutely unsuited for any other use (please no more old mill condos).  If Ct’s economy were growing there would be no problem rehabbing the corporate parks.  These are just old buildings and George Washington never slept there.  A new structure is A-OK with me.

posted by: Historian | December 13, 2013  8:36pm

A really good analysis of a state wide issue.  Well done.

posted by: StanMuzyk | December 14, 2013  9:46pm

Without new business space demand—the aging office campuses and malls—are history.  The old Yankee peddlar’s are not being replaced once they go out of business, or move to a business friendly state. “It’s really a point on no return.”

posted by: Bill Doak | December 14, 2013  10:25pm

Could these structures be converted to agricultural use? Botanical gardens? Would it make sense to cover them with solar panels and use them as power plants with some sort of educational component below? Rather than demolition a better use would be to reuse the buildings and adapt them to other purposes - or have them connected to a mass transportation system, considering the large parking areas also built as part of these offices. The could become nodes on a new transportation infrastructure.

posted by: ACR | December 15, 2013  12:38am

ACR

>>Remedying all those problems requires government action, no?

What’s required is Town Planners with vision, or that will get out of the way.
Aggressive members Planning & Zoning boards/committees is too much (in most cases) to even hope for.

posted by: robn | December 16, 2013  11:45am

There are large   corporate parks all over the country which are sometimes occupied and sometimes unoccupied. CT shouldn’t be asking itself what to do with these empty facilities, it should be changing the things that drive companies to other states.

posted by: shocked | December 16, 2013  3:03pm

@ Terry.  Um no.

Govt does not a good record for fixing blight pretty much anywhere ever. Why here now?  Foreclosure - ok auction time. Hartford and Bridgeport have “more govt” answers, how is that working?  It is a fallacious argument. And keep in mind - there may not be an answer. No matter how many “smart” politicians and officials there are there may not be answer.  Using other people’s money to find that unicorn of an answer should be considered shameful.  Normally it gets you elected though.