Once-Empty Bell Labs Building Revived as New Jersey Tech Hub

  • Acacia, Nvidia leases signed at Saarinen-designed property
  • Newly renamed Bell Works used for driverless-car development

Legendary architect Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs headquarters in Holmdel, New Jersey, which sat empty for almost a decade after the phone company’s successors abandoned it, is showing signs of new life as a 21st-century technology hub with the signing of three leases.

The tenants have agreed to take a total of about 40,000 square feet (3,700 square meters) inside the secluded glass box surrounded by woods and suburban homes, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Manhattan. The largest and latest of the leases is with Acacia Communications Inc., a designer of cloud-based communications services, which will have about 26,000 square feet at the property, now called Bell Works. The other two tenants are Nvidia Corp., which is developing software for self-driving cars, and McCann Systems LLC, which advises businesses on their use of audiovisual technology.

Rendering of the renovated Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs headquarters.

Source: Bezier CG

With the three deals, about a tenth of the about 1 million square feet set aside for office space at the building off the Garden State Parkway have been leased following years of uncertainty that the property could ever be revived. While Bell Works has a long way to go, Ralph Zucker, who’s owned the building since 2013, said he’s on the way to creating a self-contained “urban box in a suburban location.” The project has been “swimming against the tide” of New Jersey’s vacant suburban corporate campuses with its Saarinen design and legacy, Zucker said.

‘Frontier Location’

James Hughes, dean of Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick, New Jersey, called it an encouraging start for a “frontier location,” far away both physically and culturally from the downtowns that tech pioneers tend to prefer.

“The question is, ‘Are they legitimizing that location?’” he said. “And ultimately it makes it easier for somebody else to make a decision to move there. It’s obviously risky, it’s a long road ahead, but it may be establishing a baseline.”

Zucker believes so.

“It speaks to people who, more than they need to be here, they want to be here,” he said. “They buy into the ethos of Bell Works, the collaborative nature of the space. They had many options and they chose Bell Works because of its vibe and its history.”

A key part of the attraction is the building’s six-story center court. Under a glass roof above an atrium almost 1,000 feet (300 meters) long, Zucker has created a cafe and plans to have exhibit space for tenants. There’s also a co-working area in the building similar to what WeWork Cos. offers, he said. His firm has also been replacing interior drywall with 5 miles of glass, which is how Saarinen first envisioned it, Zucker said. The architect died in 1961 at the age of 51, before the building was complete.

Hotel, Retail

Zucker’s firm, Somerset Development, paid Alcatel-Lucent SA $27 million for the building, then embarked on a $200 million redevelopment that includes a health center, a hotel, retail and a public library. There are also plans for 225 units of housing on a remote parcel of the 478-acre (193-hectare) property, where Toll Brothers Inc. will build homes starting at more than $600,000.

Rendering of the center court.

Source: Bezier CG

Saarinen’s most famous designs include St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, and the bird-in-flight-shaped Trans World Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which like Bell Labs, also outlived its original use. It’s now being converted into a hotel after years of sitting idle.

The Bell site is known not just for its architecture but also for scientific breakthroughs made there, including critical advances in radio astronomy and cell-phone technology, said Tony Tyson, a University of California, Davis, physics professor who once worked at Bell Labs.

‘Bit Below’

The asking rent for office space in the building is $27.50 a square foot, Zucker said, and the earliest deals “came in a little bit below that.” He declined to say how much Acacia, Nvidia and McCann are paying.

In addition to 5,572 square feet of offices, Nvidia is also using a two-bay garage to store vehicles it uses to test its self-driving technology, Zucker said. According to a blog post by Nvidia staff member Danny Shapiro, the property will give the company “the ability to test cars in difficult weather conditions.”

Hector Marinez, a spokesman for Nvidia, said the company had no comment on Bell Works beyond the blog post. Jason Ouellette, an Acacia spokesman, also declined to comment on his company’s lease.

McCann Systems chose Bell Works for its headquarters over space in Edison, New Jersey, at Metropark, which has its own NJ Transit station about 45 minutes from midtown Manhattan, said Robin Goldman, the company’s chief marketing officer.

“Metropark would have been very convenient for us,” she said. “When we first heard about this space we were like, ‘Well, I don’t know, it’s all the way down in Holmdel.’ But we just became very excited about the whole thought of all of these technology companies coming together, and being able to create this experience in kind of the farmland of New Jersey.”

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