The suburban office park of 2014 is different from the suburban office park
of 1990. The same buildings may
be there. But what is going on
in them is often very different.
The Wells Avenue Executive Park in Newton is a case in point.
Bordered by wetlands along the Charles River and the campus of Mt. Ida
College, about a mile from the Highland Avenue interchange of Route 128, the
park was begun in the late 1960s and was developed in a woodsy, campus
style. It became one of Route
128’s prime office locations.
The first buildings in the park were good-quality one-story industrials.
In the 1980s, office development took over, and some of the city’s
most attractive buildings, brick-clad, with windows in long bands and
double-height lobbies, were installed.
Since then, the park has achieved a high level of prestige.
Office rents at Wells Avenue have been as high as any in the Route
But in 20 years, the world of office space has changed.
Office rents have flattened.
Much of the suburban office space that rented for $25 per foot per
year in 1990 still rents for $25 today.
Meanwhile, apartment rents have soared.
Those cranes we see on the skyline, building the new buildings across
Greater Boston, for the most part are building apartments, not offices.
Most new suburban offices today are unable to repay their
construction costs, and that is why we don’t see them on the rise.
The trend to “repurposing” of office and industrial buildings at Wells
Avenue and other suburban parks like it is not new.
In the past 20 years, the Wells Avenue Executive Park has seen these
Solomon Schecter School, going into the former Jordan’s
Furniture warehouse, the largest industrial building in the
Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, taking over
most of the space in the prime office building at the
entrance to the park
Boston Sports Club, a fitness center re-using the former
industrial building at 135 Wells Avenue
outpatient medical clinic for Newton-Wellesley Hospital, in
another of the park’s large former industrial buildings
most recent proposal, in late 2013, for a 350-unit apartment
to take the place of the sports club
These are not the uses for which the park was intended.
But they are the uses it has come to.
The trend is clear: housing, schools, medical space, and recreation
supplanting offices and industrials, our places of work.
Twenty years ago, if someone had asked an industry observer where the Wells
Avenue Executive Park and office parks in general were headed, the answer
would likely have been “strong growth.”
Investors invested heavily in office buildings.
But the returns have been anything but strong.
Take a drive through the Wells Avenue Executive Park or through any suburban
office park from the 1970s or the 1980s.
The same attractive buildings, which still look modern, line the
roads. But what goes on inside
their walls increasingly involves these new uses.
Along Route 495 especially, a visitor encounters large, wooded sites
that were originally planned for offices.
Today those sites stand idle.
When buyers can buy 1980s-era office buildings for far less than what
it would cost to build them, what is the chance that anyone will build a new
office on any of those sites?
The chance is far better that, when development does come, it will be in the
form of an indoor soccer field, a medical building, or a school.
Developers don’t sit still. They
harness change. At the Needham
Crossing Office Park just down the road from Wells Avenue, older buildings
are coming down in favor of a hotel and incubator space for innovative
start-ups. In Westwood, an
entire park has come down so that a modern village-style development next to
the commuter rail stop can take its place.
The office park is re-inventing itself.
The change is dramatic.
And it has come about in only twenty years.