Friday, January 25, 2013

Are Corporate High-Tech Campuses Really Dead?

Years ago, in the Neolithic 1980s, I was job captain on the planning of a number of then high tech campuses for some of the up-and-coming companies of the day, Sun Microsystems, Rolm, HP and maybe even an IBM. I also did some master planning of campuses that were incubator developments that would later become the Apples and Ciscos. I worked in Scotland, Texas, Colorado, and of course the mothership of technocracies, California.
What was common was not just a cohesive master plan with hundreds of thousands of square feet, but a land use plan with lakes and gymnasiums, restaurants/cafeterias, and other cool stuff. The goal was not unlike a college campus – thus the high-tech business campus began. These ancestors of the 21st century tech campus, especially in Silicon valley, have now been dissolved and reimagined as the technocratic social media campus and other multi-use business parks (old school term) we see today. But what is the future for these companies and their insatiable need for space?

An article that crossed my desk GO HERE from the San Francisco Bay Area real estate news company The Registry, got me thinking. They dug into the past reasons and the murky futures of the high tech campus, albeit from a totally different perspective – the high-density, vertical, downtown mega building in the mega city and its future as “THE” place for this type of campus growth. I wondered what could be expected from these non-suburban company GHQs? Why downtown San Francisco, why New York, why not?

Most tech campuses are still suburban or at least within the urban ring, they are near airports and freeways – workers, even those on the web, still needed to show-up to work. They are near other tech campuses (potential employees), near universities (highly educated – low-pay employees), and less expensive housing (especially now), think Austin, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina. The vision now is an uber-technocrat in SOHO, New York or SOMO, San Francisco with everything they need just a subway or taxi drive away. That would have never even passed as a shadow through the mind of a business owner back in the day. Then, as even now, home base was near where the owner/founder lived, not where a bunch of black jeaned techies with moussed hair, live. A problem that Silicon Valley has today is that all the cool kids want to live in San Francisco and work in Mountain View, or have a loft in New York City and not work in New Jersey. So the “factory” is moving - a boon to the landlords of the once old and cheap (not anymore) warehouse space in the south of Market area of San Francisco and the Bowery of New York. These are the metro-technicals of the future.

With this comes all the usual problems that retrofits have: severe lack of the essentials such as power, fiber optics, water, sewerage, parking and transit. Cities are bribing these companies to come and rebuild their old infrastructures for deferrals of taxes and fees. Suburban communities would kill for some of these companies, unfortunately the employees would rather be found dead than use the window at a drive-up Starbucks. Such is the life of the urban uber-techie; which black tee shirt to wear with which black jeans? but I generalize and I'm old. For the better cities these can be home runs, ask Boston and even Chicago.

This too will change, and soon, and morph into something different. Is face to face necessary in a high tech world? We are instantaneous and everywhere, so why a campus at all? A million square feet of old creaky wood flooring and spalling concrete columns is urban-chic, but you still need to put people in it. So a longer term vision may be in order.

The billions being spent by Apple for their new “suburban” campus is, maybe, up in the air (my speculation), especially when you lose more than 1/3rd of your market cap in less than six months. So we will wait and see.

Back in the day, when these were developer driven campuses, the first question was “What will it cost to retrofit this complex when the lease is up or the company has been bought out. What will I do with this dinosaur then?”

Not my problem I thought to myself, not my problem.

Stay Tuned . . . . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment