How vacant corporate campuses might gain new life

When large, sprawling corporate campuses were built in the suburbs decades ago housing headquarters for giants like McDonald's, Ameritech and Motorola, no one predicted they would now stand nearly vacant.

Changing lifestyles and corporate decisions have left municipalities and commercial real estate developers wondering how to fill the large properties dotted with dormant buildings, ponds and elaborate landscaping.

One thing seems certain: Other large companies are unlikely to step into existing suburban mega-campuses that housed McDonald's in Oak Brook, AT&T in Hoffman Estates and Motorola in Schaumburg. There are only so many Amazon- and Google-sized companies out there and they are being wooed by cities across the country, experts say.

The shift away from suburban mega-campuses began as companies downsized, stepped up telecommuting and moved as ways to cut costs and appeal to young workers, with many corporate giants relocating to Chicago.

"People have different lifestyles. Millennials don't want to start their life in the suburbs," said Dirk Lohan, the architect who designed the 74-acre McDonald's campus and the 150-acre Ameritech campus later occupied by AT&T in Hoffman Estates.

Property managers have sought large companies to fill the suburban vacancies. "It has not worked. They now are trying plan B," said Fred Ishler, a partner with Avison Young, a commercial real estate brokerage in Rosemont. He added that the market has been soft and these areas are not where large tenants are looking right now.

Alternative plans are beginning to take shape at several suburban properties. In Hoffman Estates, Somerset Development of New Jersey has outlined plans to convert the AT&T campus into a self-contained "city" using the existing buildings for 1.2 million square feet of offices, 60,000 square feet of retail shops and 80,000 square feet of conference space, while new construction would add 375 apartments, 175 townhouses and maybe a 200-room hotel.

Somerset, which led a similar redevelopment of the Bell Labs complex in Holmdel, New Jersey, has referred to it as a "metroburb."

A similar future is planned for the former Motorola Solutions campus to be a virtually self-contained community of offices, homes, stores, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues on 225 acres. A proposal has been submitted for a Topgolf sports entertainment facility. Developers are working on a loft-style apartment building as well as plans for owner-occupied row homes, a senior housing facility and a medical office building. Though the Motorola campus was 322 acres when it was developed from a farm the company bought in 1964, the land is already the site of Zurich North America's new headquarters as well as Motorola Solution's downsized presence after the headquarters moved to Chicago.

Will the plan for self-contained cities work in the suburbs? Experts agree it's a bit of a "Sunbelt approach" that has worked in Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix. Ishler said the suburbs are in uncharted waters with the concept.

Lauren Tilmont of JLL, a Chicago-based company that offers brokerage and property management services, is optimistic. "I think it's going to work. It may take time. I think it will bring good energy to those areas."

While industry experts agree the idea is good, they question whether there is enough office demand for all these properties in areas that are not seeing much office growth right now. Ishler says the O'Hare market, especially Rosemont and part of Chicago, is one exception and is expected to remain strong.

Lohan believes a mixed-use redevelopment, possibly with high-end multifamily or senior housing, would also work in Oak Brook, where McDonald's built its headquarters in 1971.

The Motorola Solutions and McDonald's campuses are among 10 Illinois sites pitched for Amazon's second headquarters, but local officials and developers aren't standing still while awaiting a decision, expected this year. "Deals of that size are few and far between," said Dan McCarthy of JLL.

Lohan said mixed-use projects are positive for municipalities and school districts that lose a lot of money when large corporations move out. "A plan like this may be safer for municipalities and schools," he said, because they won't suffer the big hit of one large player moving out.

Barrington Unit District 220 school officials are cautiously optimistic about the Hoffman Estates proposal. The district has had a major loss of property tax revenue since AT&T began moving out a few years ago.

While they welcome the idea of redeveloping these sites, school districts also want to ensure the cost of educating students who would live there doesn't outweigh the additional property taxes schools would receive.

Experts say they hope the vacated properties will again see life.

Lohan, now in his 70s and a principal at Wight & Company, says he believes the proposed projects will be good solutions for the former corporate homes that he designed years ago. "I think of these projects like my children. I want to see them prosper and blossom."

Bell Works in Holmdel, New Jersey - a redevelopment of the former 2-million-square-foot Bell Labs building - is the basis for Somerset Development's plan for the former AT&T campus in Hoffman Estates. Courtesy of Somerset Development
McDonald's campus, in Oak Brook, is one of the possibilities for the new Amazon headquarters. Daily Herald file photo
  An aerial view of the AT&T campus in Hoffman Estates. Joe Lewnard/
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.