The shrubbery stirs in the breeze, which carries the odor of crushed asphalt.
Yellow paint is chipping off the curbs.
A single orange traffic cone sits in the revolving door that no longer revolves, at the front of an office building that’s no longer an office building.
The building in North Bethesda has eight floors. It is 98.7 percent vacant. There is one life form within its nearly 210,000 square feet — not counting the lobby fern on life support — and she wears a security uniform, sits at the front desk and listens to the muffled whine of a faulty alarm for hours at a time, every day between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“It’s quite annoying,” say Lum Tumentang, the guard. The building engineer sometimes stops by and turns it off, but it inevitably trips again. There’s one or two IT people who do IT stuff one flight up, but they’re not here right now. The building was built in 1989, and it shows: a mountain of tinted glass and beige concrete in commercial dullsville. Over the past decade, its value dropped by 64 percent. The largest tenant, the National Institutes of Health and its contractors, started packing up two years ago as leases expired. By 2014, the owner reported cash-flow problems, foreclosure arrived this past January, and that was it for 6116 Executive Blvd.
Across the empty parking lot, over the islets of mulch, past security gates that no longer have gates, in a near-identical building that is actually 100 percent vacant, a man named Duane pushes a broom over the renovated floor of another lobby that isn’t being used.
“Keep it up, spruce it up,” he says. “In case somebody wants to buy it.”
There are 71.5 million square feet of vacant office space in the Washington region, much of it piled in office parks. That’s enough emptiness to fill the Mall four times over, with just enough left to fill most of the Pentagon, the granddaddy of office buildings. If office space was a commodity, we would make a killing by selling our excess in bulk to San Francisco, where it’s so scarce and costly, according to Quartz, that start-up employees are starting to work in shopping malls.
Another 1 million square feet of office space will flow onto the market over the next seven years, as Marriott International moves out of its Bethesda office park at 10400 Fernwood Rd., which was built in 1978 and is leased until 2022.
“I think, as with many other things, our younger folks are more inclined to be Metro-accessible and more urban,” Marriott chief executive Arne Sorenson told The Washington Post in March, after announcing the plans to move.
If tastes keep trending away from office parks, buildings like 6116 Executive Blvd. and 10400 Fernwood Rd. may soon be hollow, oversize memorials to the Way We Worked.
The American ghost town has assumed different forms: the abandoned gold-rush towns out West, the silent Floridian subdivisions of underwater McMansions. Now, we have fiefdoms of mid-Atlantic office space, on streets named Research Boulevard and Professional Drive, thinning out in the sprawl. They are hobbled by changing work styles and government shrinkage. People telecommute. People move into the city or into faux-urban areas that are friendlier to pedestrians, that aren’t barnacled on a highway. Younger generations don’t want to be stranded in a “Dilbert” cartoon. They want cozy nooks and nap spaces, walkable commutes, the tastes and conveniences of the city.
How did we get here? Why do we work in office parks, and why are we now souring on them?
Let’s blame Thomas Jefferson.
“I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America,” Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. “When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”
“In some kind of really bizarre way, there’s a line from Thomas Jefferson to the office park,” says Louise A. Mozingo, chair of the department of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote the book “Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes.” Office parks “are very symbolic of American distrust of the center city. . . . The ideal American, in [Jefferson’s] political writing, is a small farmer. We’re no longer on farms, but we work in this tended green environment.”
Starting in 1941, companies such as AT&T pioneered the concept of corporate campuses, which were modeled after universities in order to attract PhDs and other top-flight brains. The first office park opened in Mountain Brook, Ala., an upper-class white suburb of Birmingham, in the early 1950s as commuters became uneasy with simmering racial tension in city centers. The model soon spread to Atlanta and Boston, where the real-estate firm Cabot, Cabot & Forbes turned the speculative development of office parks into a bonanza of profit.
The parks were landscaped like Winslow Homer paintings, with a touch of Philip K. Dick science fiction.
They were hooked onto the spreading American highway system or planted near new regional airports.
They were designed to be utterly predictable, familiar, disconnected and unchanging, both socially and aesthetically — the better to soothe employees and keep them focused.
With its space-hungry bureaucracies and contractors, Washington became a colossal hive of office parks, especially during years of government expansion — most recently the post-Sept. 11, 2001 period, when the military ramped up and the national-security apparatus spread along the Dulles Corridor.
In the 1950s, “Businessweek wrote this article about how work goes on in an atmosphere attractive to ‘brainy youngsters,’ ” Mozingo says. “I now say that brainy youngsters are trending urban and urbane, away from your grandfather’s office parks.”
Factor in the D.C. region’s net outward migration, its slowing growth rate and the government erosion wrought by sequestration, and you’ve got a problem. The office-market artery of Interstate 270 is shriveling, according to a June report prepared for the Montgomery County Planning Department. Last year, federal agencies vacated 7,315 buildings, abandoning 47 million square feet of office and warehouse space, Federal News Radio says.
The U.S. government hasn’t signed any major leases this year, Delta Associates says, but it maintains 98 million square feet in the District alone (411 million if you throw in Maryland and Virginia). In March, the Office of Management and Budget instructed federal agencies to continue reducing their footprint by capping the amount of square footage per workstation.
The National Institutes of Health — which has moved out of satellite offices like 6116 Executive Blvd. and into a single facility in Shady Grove — reduced the average square footage per employee by 22 percent.
The sound you hear is the quiet whistle of an office balloon deflating. The walls are closing in.
All is not lost! Commercial leasing in the Washington area was up 16 percent in the second quarter, particularly in mid-size buildings that are attracting nonprofits and start-ups, according to financial and professional services firm JLL. This past quarter, Northern Virginia gained more leases than it lost for the first time since 2013, mostly because of the magnetic powers of Metro’s new Silver Line, according to realty company CBRE Group.
Most analyses of the market indicate that office parks simply aren’t as appealing or profitable as they were in the 20th century and that Americans just aren’t as keen to cloister themselves in workspaces that are reachable only by car. Yet Facebook, Apple and Google — companies that brag about their forward thinking — are trying to reinvent this template of the past. They have commissioned high-profile architects to design versions of the ultimate office park in Silicon Valley, an hour-plus shuttle ride from San Francisco. They will, of course, provide life’s necessities and amenities on-site: micro kitchens, rooftop gardens, translucent roofs, bike paths, restaurants. They will be movable, lightweight structures instead of blocky concrete buildings. Anything to attract brilliant minds and assure employees that they’re living in the future, not a glorified version of the past.
Office parks do have a lingering utopian appeal that makes order out of a chaotic world. Two miles from the Grosvenor Metro station, in between the gray legs of the I-270 spur, Rockledge Drive encircles a man-made kidney-shaped pond that is the same color as the grass (space-alien green). There are seven office buildings on Rockledge. One is a third vacant. One is half vacant. One is entirely vacant as it undergoes renovations, with the hope that an aura of newness will attract renters to this secluded spot.
Laurel, Md., resident Dawn Chepures is checking her phone on a bench by the pond. She used to work in Capitol Heights and didn’t like to leave her office building. Employees’ cars were burgled routinely. Here, she says, you can wander outside without encountering, say, a riot.
“You don’t have anything going on like what happened in Baltimore,” says Chepures, who works in accounts payable at a military research firm. “It’s a little more upscale here.”
And more guarded. You need a key fob to make the elevators work. A stranger in casual dress who is strolling around the pond is viewed with suspicion. Lunches are eaten in cubicles or consumed quietly at the single deli on the grounds.
Marriott International is just to the south. The other corporate campus across the street belongs to Lockheed Martin, whose baleful perimeter is regulated by gates and police cruisers. There’s an overall aura of disconnection and loneliness in this triumvirate of office parks, although Thomas Jefferson might interpret that as peacefulness.
Back to Executive Boulevard, which is (no joke) off East Jefferson Street: It’s a mile from a Starbucks, an Arby’s and the White Flint Metro station, but it still feels a world away from the world. How does one pass the time in an office building where nobody ever comes in and nobody ever goes out?
Every hour, the security guard has to write a brief security report, even if it’s just one line.
But, we ask, what if nothing happens?
“You have to write something,” Tumentang says. “Now that you have come, I will log that.”
We feel weirdly special. We thank her for the short chat and say goodbye.
“It’s been a pleasure,” she says, and she seems to mean it.