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  • Abandoned Bell Labs could make history again

    by Ian T. Shearn/The Star-Ledger
    Sunday August 03, 2008, 12:20 AM

    The garden in the center courtyard of the former Bell Laboratories campus in Holmdel has gone to seed.

    When it comes to scientific research, Bell Laboratories' Holmdel campus remains one of the most famous addresses in the world.

    This is where one of the most prolific technology innovators gave us cell phones, microwave ovens and the global wireless movement, arguably the most crucial communications development of the 20th century.

    But these are different times.

    Today, where Nobel laureates once advanced the debate over the formation of the universe, long vines stretch across the carpet in the building's atrium and a sole security guard walks around puddles of water when doing his rounds.

    Bell Labs' big bang has been reduced to a stifled whimper.

    Last year, a plan to demolish most of the mammoth structure and replace it with smaller office buildings and single-family homes on the 472-acre site in Monmouth County was introduced and soon abandoned under a wave of protest.

    But now, Bell Labs, the once-magnificent campus considered too inflexible, too immured and too grand to save, has received a stay of execution and, if a new developer has his way, a second life.

    Abandoned for more than a year and slipping into disrepair, the 2-million-square-foot building has a new suitor in Somerset Development, a Lakewood firm that wants to keep the architectural gem standing and convert it into its own self-contained village, The Star-Ledger has learned.

    "I don't go around preserving architectural wonders," Somerset president Ralph Zucker said in an interview last week. "But when I find an architectural wonder, and I can turn it into a great place, that's what we're all about."

    Zucker is well aware that the structure itself has attracted almost as much acclaim as the historic advances made there.

    Designed by renowned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who also created the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA terminal at JFK International Airport, Bell Labs was the world's first mirrored building. Erected in 1962 and expanded in 1966 and 1982, it has been the subject of architectural study in universities around the world.

    But its purpose has lapsed in the rapidly shifting world of science, technology and commerce.

    Zucker's new, and still forming, plan would keep the building essentially as is, but modified to accommodate retail on the ground floor, with condos, apartments and office space above.

    Mary Ward, spokeswoman for Alcatel-Lucent, which owns the property, confirmed that a contract has been signed with Somerset, but said she was not at liberty to discuss particulars.

    Somerset came to terms in recent months to purchase the building after a contract with another developer, Preferred Real Estate Investments, fell through late last year. Preferred had proposed demolishing most of the landmark edifice, and building smaller office buildings and houses on the 472-acre site.

    That notion triggered immediate protest from a variety of interests. It prompted letters from more than 100 members of the National Academy of Sciences, among them a dozen Nobel laureates. Soon, a high-octane coalition of historic preservationists, conservationists and architects joined forces to save the imposing edifice, along with its history and acclaimed architecture.

    On Wednesday, Zucker sat down with a key member of the coalition -- Michael Califati, chairman of historic resources committee of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Institute of Architects -- to exchange ideas. Each man said he left the meeting encouraged.

    "Their thinking is in line with our thinking, and actually influenced our thinking," Zucker said. And while preservationists and developers often collide, he said, "In this case, our interests are aligned."

    Califati's take on the sitdown was similar, though a bit more guarded.

    "It went well. We're pursuing parallel tracks," he said. "But the devil is in the details. I want to see what they're proposing."


    The coalition, which also includes Preservation NJ and the tri-state chapter of Docomomo, an international architects' group for the "documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement," hosted a three-day design workshop at the site in April. Califati said the group will issue an extensive report of its research, along with recommendations for the site, by next month.

    "Everybody calls this place a dinosaur, with its windowless offices, its glass curtain wall, its lack of circulation" he said. "It doesn't mean the building cannot be manipulated. .¤.¤. We don't think enough brain power has been put on this project."

    One of the biggest challenges Zucker faces is the lack of open air and direct light, which was an intended part of Saarinen's design to accommodate the delicate needs of scientific research. But Califati and Zucker each see one way to address that problem: Punch a hole in the middle of each of the four buildings and create a huge courtyard in the middle of each structure.

    One thing is clear, Zucker said: "There is no magic bullet" for the mammoth building, which once accommodated 6,000 employees. It will never host a single tenant again, he said. It must assume a new identity.

    Zucker sees the long, superwide corridors where scientists roamed between the buildings, transformed into a "street scene, a town square," replete with small town amenities: shops, restaurants, a bank, a health club, the coveted Starbucks. Still in the "broad-brush-stroke phase," Zucker can even see making the building's auditorium into a movie theater.

    With a host of obstacles, he does have some elements going for him: plenty of parking, little environmental cleanup to be done and a building that carries a glowing legacy. But it comes at a time when the great corporate campuses of post-World War II America are being abandoned, conceptually and literally.

    The biggest challenge, Zucker said, is an apparent reference to deadlines in the purchase contract that he cannot discuss. There are many interested parties involved, and his concern is "how long it is going to take to reach a consensus."

    At the request of the mayor a year ago, Holmdel's Citizens Advisory Committee for the Lucent Property submitted a report to the township committee April 24. The report essentially recommended the township hire a professional planner to perform a thorough assessment of the building, and make proposals.

    But Ralph Blumenthal, the committee's co-chairman, said he was told the township has no funds for such a task. He expected to make a presentation when he turned over the report, but that idea was scrapped.

    "At the moment, they seem to be totally unresponsive," said Blumenthal, who worked as a systems engineer in the building. "They seem to want the problem to go away."

    What did go away when Alcatel-Lucent closed down the facility last July was millions of dollars in tax revenue. Ten years ago, the property generated more than $4 million in annual property tax, 12 percent of the township's ratables, the advisory committee's report said. Now, it is below $1 million.

    In the meantime, Zucker said he is already reaching out to possible office tenants for the building, and is willing to offer rents significantly below market rate to jump-start the process.

    Zucker, 46, is a reformed subdivision sprawl developer who found religion in New Urbanism, the planning movement for reviving and restoring compact, walkable, mixed-use cities and towns.

    He recently broke ground in Wood-Ridge, in southern Bergen County, on a $500 million project where he will transform another 2 million-square-foot historic site -- the former Curtiss-Wright airplane manufacturing plant that churned out B-29 bomber engines during World War II -- into a mixed-use neighborhood with stores, apartments and homes next to a new NJ Transit train station.

    When complete, the 150-acre site will have 788 residential units and 130,000 square feet of retail space surrounding a public square. Plans are under way to erect a bronze statue of Rosie the Riveter, a tribute to the women who worked the factories during World War II.

    One of Zucker's first tasks in the world of development was when, as a young man, he personally gutted and rehabbed a carriage house in Lakewood.

    Now, nearly 20 years later, he wants to tackle the mother of all fixer-uppers.

    COMMENTS (15)Post a comment
    Posted by ironbound1 on 08/03/08 at 8:07AM

    I worked there for about 10 years and can't believe anyone would want to save this building. It is vast inside but also dated. The building itself was actually a prison design converted for office use. There are probably some many carcinogens in the ground I doubt anyone would want their kids playing on the grass. Sometimes you have to let go of nostalgia and move forward with common sense. This developer will do nothing but lose his investment when this monster starts rearing its ugly head.

    Posted by izach26 on 08/03/08 at 11:56AM

    WHOA, When you look a it it really does look like and old prison, yikes thats scary

    Posted by njguy42 on 08/03/08 at 12:01PM

    This really could be put to good use in terms of economic development: Nj is the home state of so many technological innovations that have been critical to the nation's economic development.

    I'd like to see the building be converted to a Museum of Science & Tecnology with classroom and conference space.

    Posted by Converger on 08/03/08 at 1:32PM

    Yes, this place could be put to good use. How about as a state-of-the-art prison? It already looks like one. What this country needs is another good Club-Fed.

    Posted by ironbound1 on 08/03/08 at 3:45PM

    This building also is very environmentally unfriendly. There is so much glass and open areas that it costs a fortune to cool and heat. Where are all the global warming doomsayers? I think they would agree that this building has a humongous carbon footprint.

    Posted by param01 on 08/03/08 at 4:09PM

    I think it is sad that this building once was home to 6,000 employees and now is completely empty. It was once a symbol of America's greatness and now a symbol of America's decline.

    Posted by ironbound1 on 08/03/08 at 5:18PM

    param01, I totally disagree. It is a monument but it is one to monumental failure. Lucent failed to roll with the times and was left behind by much more nimble companies. Most of those 6000 people who worked there are happily employed elsewhere. I know because I am one of them.

    Posted by RightFullyOn on 08/03/08 at 10:32PM

    Someone could develop it just like it is into a paintball experience. Would make for some awesome times, lol.

    Posted by thepinkster on 08/04/08 at 10:01PM

    I worked here for many years and have very fond memories of this building! For one thing, compared to other Bell Labs buildings I never got a cold here nor a sinus infection! that tells you how clean the air was. I think it is great that someone is trying to save the architecture!
    Bell Labs was a great place to work!

    Posted by macncheez on 08/05/08 at 7:14AM

    Ahhh.. another by-product of the Pat Russo legacy..... She made herself a personal fortune while she fired tens of thousands of people and destroyed an American icon.. Sold it to the French... and then proceeded to destroy the French company as well...

    Yet after collecting millions for her failure, she is about to collect millions more, as well as an annual pension payment of $760,000...

    and then Wall St wonders why the rank & file are so miffed about out-of-control executive pay... She is the poster child!

    Posted by braniff747 on 08/05/08 at 12:13PM

    This is a place I will remember fondly - to me it was the stuff of legend. I once worked for a media production company and we shot video here for AT&T's new ATM and Frame Relay services, circa 1993. Can never forget some of the lab areas full of networking gear, 5ESS cabinets, 3B2 machines, etc. I was told the basement offices were reinforced concrete and blastproof - in case those mad scientists' experiments got a little outa hand :) The cafeteria was always fun to hang out in too...nice view of the lake and geese IIRC.

    I ended up working for AT&T just after trivestiture and our group's first manager still worked out of this building for a while, so we made frequent trips for meetings.

    Sadly, I also heard reports that Alcatelucent might be abandoning the Whippany facility as well, which has even more history. Hopefully they will not abandon the Murray Hill complex anytime soon.

    So it goes...the price you pay for poor management and direction and a shaky economy.

    Posted by Rocknj on 08/05/08 at 12:45PM

    Whippany is closing within the year. All Lucent will be left with is the HQ at Murray Hill. Sad to see the Holmdel facility is such disrepair. I worked there for a few months about ten years ago. It was quite a thriving place, with stores in the basement, it felt like a small shopping mall.

    Posted by bobcnj on 08/07/08 at 4:15PM

    I couldn't have said it better how she got away with running that company into the ground is beyond me. I think that the Board Of Directors (Idiots) should all go to jail for allowing her to get away with it.

    Posted by lucatel on 08/07/08 at 5:21PM

    It would be fitting to turn the place into a jail.

    The first residents should be the executives at Lucent that ran the company into the ground while taking millions from the employees and share holders.

    Posted by shop2008 on 08/18/08 at 1:55PM

    worked there for about 25 years and can't believe anyone would want this building. There are probably some many carcinogens in the ground Many people have gotten sick from this people who worked there have a lot of health problems. I doubt anyone would want their kids playing on the grass. This developer will do nothing but lose his investment when this monster starts rearing its ugly head. Plus it was suppose to be for low income housing

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