Taming the Office Park

Michael Lewyn's picture

Most attempts to regulate suburban development have focused on containing the growth of suburban housing. But such regulation, by restricting the supply of buildable land, risks incresing housing prices. And from a more libertarian perspective, an individual's interest in choosing to "drive to qualify" may seem quite appealing. Attempts to regulate commercial suburban development do not involve the same sentimental considerations as limits on residential development, but do risk increasing prices for commercial land, thus increasing prices for everything else.

But these considerations do not justify the form of suburban office parks. I can think of no reason why an office building (other than, perhaps, one where the Ebola virus is routinely handled) should be behind a 500-foot driveway with no sidewalks. The arguments for allowing offices to locate in suburbia do not justify the office park form, because 500-foot driveways do not reduce rents in any obvious respect.

Moreover, the suburban office park in its current form creates harmful externalities, by forcing people to drive to reach them even if they live nearby (thus increasing pollution and traffic congestion).

It logically follows that office buildings should be fair game for public regulation, in all but the most libertarian jurisdictions. Quite simply, any building in an area zoned for offices should be required to be within five or ten feet of a functional sidewalk, so that a pedestrian or transit user can reach the office without endangering life or limb.

In addition, any collection of office buildings should be on grid streets rather than cul-de-sacs. The traditional justification for cul-de-sacs is to protect families from cut-through traffic. But this justification does not apply to an office building, since office buildings by definition create traffic to a much greater extent than do single-family homes.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Good thoughts, if not a bit

Good thoughts, if not a bit timid. To really tame the suburban office park the traditional setback, landscaping, parking, and lot coverage standards need to be revisited and tweaked in a big way. More than likely, however, the market will take care of this. People increasingly want to work where they can have some diversity of experiences during the work day and after, places where there are opportunities for social exchange, and walkable environments. Employers are, and will continue to respond to this, and developers will respond in term. Jurisdictions need to respond by revisting their standards and allowing a bit more flexibilty. The office in the park has seen its day-it's now time to retrofit these places and not build new ones.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Just to clarify

My suggestion that offices be required to have sidewalk proximity does revisit "traditional setback ... standards" in a big way, and implicitly changes parking as well by requiring the parking to be in back of a building or on the side (though certainly I do favor abolition of minimum parking requirements as well).

I struggle with how much to trust the market on this. The market might be able to take care of where an office should locate (city vs. suburban locations). But should there be a minimum standard of walkability even in suburban locations?
My post suggests that the answer should be yes, and tells readers how to implement such a standard if they agree.

Right on.

I lived in the once rural hamlet of Woodcliff Lake, NJ and watched as its pristine farmland and forests were gobbled up by huge corporate office parks that were hidden behind acres of land that was neither parkland or wilderness. Montvale and Park Ridge, nearby towns, also turned over their lands to these office buildings that promoted clogged roads, sprawl, and the sedentary lifestyle of sitting in cubicles, sitting in cars, and sitting all day.

Supply of Suburban Land NOT the Issue

"Most attempts to regulate suburban development have focused on containing the growth of suburban housing. But such regulation, by restricting the supply of buildable land, risks increasing housing prices."

One of the most respected economists disputes the idea that the supply of suburban housing is the real culprit when it comes to affordability. Edward Glaeser argues that restrictions on urban infill development play a large part:


But I do agree that suburban office parks are evil.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245
AICP CTP Storefont Display

The first online AICP* CTP exam prep class

Are you ready to take the AICP* Certified Transportation Planner exam?
Priced at $245 for May exam!
T-shirt with map of Chicago

Show your city pride

Men's Ultrasoft CityFabric© tees. Six cities available.
City Plate table setting

New Arrival! City Plates

City downtown cores printed on gorgeous decorative collectible porcelain plates.