Suburban Offices Are Cool Again
First you leave the city for a kid, a garage, and a backyard. Then you get a job in an office park—only maybe it’s an office park with yoga and food trucks.
For millennials, the suburbs are the new city, and employers chasing young talent are starting to look at them anew.
For years companies like Twitter, Salesforce, and GE have headed downtown, framing their urban offices as recruiting tools for young talent. After opening a new headquarters in downtown Chicago last year, Motorola Solutions bragged that it got five times the job applicants it had in the suburbs. Suburban landlords like Charles Lamphere kept hearing a common refrain from tenants: “We need to go to the city to get millennials.”
Fresh college graduates might be attracted to downtown bars and carless commutes, but these days, for older millennials starting families and taking out mortgages, a job in the suburbs has its own appeal. “What people find is that the city offers a high quality of life at the income extremes,” says Lamphere, who is chief executive of Van Vlissingen & Co., a real-estate developer based in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, Ill. “The city is a difficult place for the average working family.”
Many employers, hoping to attract millennials as they age, are trying to marry the best of urban and suburban life, choosing sites near public transit and walkable suburban main streets. “What’s desired downtown is being transferred to suburban environments to attract a suburban workforce,” says Scott Marshall, an executive managing director for investor leasing at CBRE Group.
Marriott International’s recent search for a site to replace its old office park in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., led it not into Washington but just across town, into Bethesda’s more transit-accessible downtown. (Jim Young, Marriott’s vice president of corporate facilities, cites access to “some of the nation’s top public schools”—something more millennials will care more about as their kids get older.) When Caterpillar Inc. announced its move from Peoria, Ill., to the Chicago suburbs earlier this year, CEO Jim Umpleby bragged that the new site “gives employees many options to live in either an urban or suburban environment.”
Suburban landlords are upgrading office parks with amenities to mimic urban life, too. At Van Vlissingen’s properties, that’s meant fitness centers, food-truck Fridays, beach volleyball courts, and a fire pit and amphitheater where monthly concerts are staged. Origin Investments, a real-estate investment firm, recently spruced up a dated office building outside Denver with a 4,000-square-foot fitness center and a “barista-driven” coffee lounge and stationed a rotating cast of food trucks outside a building it owns near Charlotte.
Suburban office parks appeal because they’re cheap compared to downtown buildings, says Dave Welk, a managing director at Origin, which is based in Chicago. But his firm’s suburban thesis builds on the belief that city-loving millennials will eventually opt for suburban accoutrements.
“The thinking has been, ‘We’re in a 20- to 30-year supercycle of urbanization,’” Welk says. “I believed that five years ago. I don’t believe it anymore.”
None of this means the suburbs are going to supplant central cities as job hubs. After all, jobs traditionally based in cities—jobs in professional industries as well as the service jobs that support them—are growing faster than those typically based outside of them, according to Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed.
At the same time, Americans are more likely to live in the suburbs today than they were in 2000, and even the young, affluent ones drawn to cities tend to move once their kids reach school age, Kolko’s research shows. Many of those workers will suffer long commutes into the city center. Others will opt for jobs closer to their suburban homes.
Jack Danilkowicz, 29, moved to Chicago in 2012 for a job at a financial job downtown, but within a few years, he got married and started plotting his move to the suburbs. He landed a job at Horizon Pharma, a drugmaker with offices in the northern suburb of Lake Forest, and moved with his wife to nearby Libertyville, trading city nightlife for the good public schools their newborn son will one day attend. “I grew up in the suburbs,” he says. “Probably in the back of mind, I always thought the suburbs would be the place to raise a family.”