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Updated: February 25, 2020 Focus: Commercial Development

Vacant suburban office parks present challenges, opportunities for CT landlords, municipalities

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper Bristol-Myers Squibb in recent years abandoned its former Wallingford research center, adding a major vacancy to Research Parkway.
Photo | Contributed Bristol-Myers Squibb’s former Wallingford research center was recently demolished and the land remains vacant.

Failed attempts to redevelop a 180-acre corporate campus in Wallingford vacated by drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb has left a major vacancy on the town’s well-traveled Research Parkway.

It’s been two years since Mass.-based developer-landlord Calare Properties purchased the sprawling campus for just $5 million, with hopes of leasing the state-of-the-art research facility to prospective office or biotech tenants.

That hasn’t happened, so Calare shifted its strategy and recently finished demolishing three large buildings on the campus, with no real plan on what to do next.

A proposal to erect two warehouses on-site spanning 1.1 million square feet was previously rejected by residents.

“We have 180 acres of new opportunity because it’s back to where it started,” said Tim Ryan, the town’s economic development strategist, adding that local officials communicate biweekly with Calare. “Now it’s a matter of revisioning new opportunities for the site.”

But that won’t be easy, he admits.

Wallingford’s struggle to redevelop a mothballed corporate campus isn’t wholly unique in Connecticut, or nationally. As more companies in recent years have ditched their leafy suburban campuses to move to cities, or simply downsize, some towns and developers have been left to figure out what to do with sprawling vacant office parks.

In Connecticut, there’s been mixed success in reusing shuttered corporate campuses, as landlords face a stagnant office market, rising construction costs and, in some cases, local opposition to new uses.

“There is no formula for redevelopment in one specific town,” said John Cafasso, a broker for Colliers International Group in Hartford, who added certain cities or towns may be more attractive for redevelopments than others.

A 2015 report published by real-estate advisory firm Newmark Group Inc. that examined five highly dense U.S. office tenancy submarkets — including Parsippany, N.J.; the O’Hare section of Chicago; Reston and Herndon, Va.; Denver; and the San Francisco Bay area — found that up to 22% of suburban office space is at risk of becoming obsolete. That represented about 7 percent of the nation’s office inventory, the report says.

The report also said suburban office parks “do not offer the experience most of today’s tenants are seeking.”

“If tenants are not going to be able to walk to nearby retail or a nearby office property to get lunch, they had better be able to get it at their own building,” the report says.

In Greater Hartford, vacancy rates at Class A suburban office buildings in the fourth quarter of 2019 ranged from 13.6% in the “Hartford west” market (including Avon, Farmington, Simsbury, Southington and West Hartford) to a high of 31.8% in “Hartford north” (Bloomfield, East Granby, East Windsor, Enfield, Windsor and Windsor Locks), according to realty broker-advisor CBRE.

Overall, Greater Hartford suburban tenants ceded 81,897 square feet of Class A office space last year, and 535,224 square feet of all office space. Cafasso says more Connecticut landlords are responding to tenants’ changing needs and wants by adding new amenities to their suburban office parks.

Last summer, Colliers arranged the sale of Farmington’s 30-year-old Pond View Corporate Center office campus for nearly $20 million. The new owner, New York’s Sovereign Partners, is currently investing $4 million in the multi-tenant facility to add new electrical systems and upgrade parking lots, lounge areas, digital signage and food and beverage service amenities, among other improvements.

The hope is that upgrades to the two-building office park will increase tenancy there from 75% to 95% over time.

“There’s been no difference in Class A office rental rates compared to 10 years ago,” Cafasso said. “The region as a whole has not been able to attract new tenants into the market.”

Photo | Contributed
MassMutual's corporate campus in Enfield.

CT office migration

A number of Connecticut corporations have made headlines in recent years by fleeing the suburbs for cities in and out of the state.

That includes The Hartford Financial Services Group relocating its Simsbury office employees to downtown Hartford and Windsor; Aetna moving its Middletown operations to Hartford; General Electric vacating its Fairfield headquarters for Boston; and Bristol-Myers Squibb leaving Wallingford.

MassMutual is also on pace to close its 430,000-square-foot suburban campus in Enfield by year-end 2021. The pending closure means approximately 1,500 employees will relocate from Enfield to the life insurer’s Springfield headquarters.

A “For Sale” sign has also been hung on speciality chemical manufacturer Chemtura Corp.’s former 313,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Middlebury.

Collectively, the moves added a significant amount of empty office space in the suburbs, shifted local employment levels, cut into municipal property tax revenue and forced towns and developers to rethink their redevelopment opportunities, which have led to mixed results.

Wallingford and Simsbury have had issues finding new uses for their vacant properties.

In Simsbury, New Jersey real estate development firm the Silverman Group didn’t waste time demolishing 640,000 square feet of office space formerly owned by The Hartford after it acquired the 172-acre property for $8.5 million in Dec. 2016.

The Silverman Group is redeveloping about 40 acres of that land with apartments, townhomes and two new vacant commercial buildings and a separate developer is erecting a 120-unit assisted-living facility there, a property manager said. But the remaining 132 acres, which encompassed The Hartford’s entire Simsbury campus, remains undeveloped with no future plans.

The Silverman Group didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Town Planner Michael Glidden said Simsbury is willing to collaborate with the Silverman Group, already one of the town’s largest taxpayers, to continue developing the former office park, but hasn’t come up with any solutions.

“It’s all about being creative on what you can fit in that box,” Glidden said. “It’s especially important whether you can expand that menu to attract investment.”

PHOTO | Contributed
FedEx Ground's distribution-hub facility in Middletown.

Success stories

Other municipalities have had better success redeveloping vacated properties.

For example, Sacred Heart University in recent years has steadily grown its presence at General Electric’s former corporate headquarters in Fairfield that housed two, three-story buildings. The private college recently unveiled plans to construct a new $60-million, 4,000-seat hockey and skating arena on part of the former GE campus.

Meantime, Aetna’s $170-million campus in Middletown was heralded as a crown jewel of economic development when the health insurer debuted the 1.3 million-square-foot campus in 1983.

But faced with the prospect of making major investments to upgrade the facility, home to nearly 5,000 employees at its peak, Aetna decided in 2010 to move its Middletown operations to Hartford and raze the main building there for another user.

It found a taker within six years: FedEx Ground, which finished building a 600,000-square-foot distribution facility on-site in 2018.

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
An entrance to FedEx Ground's sprawling distribution facility in Middletown.

The FedEx redevelopment may offer a roadmap for landlords and towns looking to reinvent dormant suburban office parks.

The broker for the property, Cushman & Wakefield, had identified FedEx as a possible tenant through a national marketing campaign, and arranged a campus and city tour in winter 2015, according to city officials.

The city and Middlesex Chamber of Commerce then connected FedEx with Middlesex Community College and other local higher-education institutions to discuss developing a talent pipeline to fill some 1,000 jobs that would be created.

The city also outlined its zoning approval process for FedEx, prepared a local economic report, and forged new relationships between the company and state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), among other recruitment tactics. That eventually led to DECD granting a five-year tax abatement for FedEx’s property improvements.

Tom Marano, the city’s economic development specialist, said local officials simplified FedEx’s expansion, which is why he believes the company selected Middletown over several other states in consideration.

“Through the whole process we made it easier for them,” Marano said. “We showed them their time from application to approval would be quicker here than every other community.”

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