Ralph Zucker can barely sit still.
You’d think it’s because of nervous energy or stress. After all, he’s responsible for filling 2 million square feet of the former Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, and charged with preserving its rich legacy of innovation.
But it’s not anxiety percolating through Zucker—it’s excitement. Though the building is largely empty and the staff zips through the hollow halls that stretch three football fields long on Segways, Zucker sees the facility full and bustling.
“There will be a gourmet café there,” Zucker says.
“The hotel will be over there,” he points.
“Come with me, I gotta show you an office we’re working on,” he says, hopping up from a chair and nearly skipping around the corner.
Zucker can see it all, even though not much of it has manifested yet. But since he first saw the building in 2008, and his company, Somerset Development, closed on the purchase in 2013, he knew what he had envisioned—the vibe of the city in the middle of the suburbs.
HOW BELL LABS BECAME BELL WORKS
The history of the Bell Labs facility is well-known:
- The innovative design by renowned architect Eero Saarinen
- The home of seven Nobel Prize winners
- The birthplace of radio astronomy
- The idea factory that spawned much of today’s technology
Essentially, it was Google, Apple, and Microsoft in one, tucked away in a 472-acre campus in suburban Monmouth County.
But after the breakup of the Ma Bell monopoly, the new owners, Alcatel-Lucent, took over the facility in 2006, shut it down in 2007, and then left it vacant.
That’s when Somerset Development came in. Zucker saw the facility as an incredible opportunity for his company, which he describes as new urbanist developers that create people-centric, pedestrian-friendly environments.
Zucker shared his vision for the property with the town, but it took plenty of time, meetings, negotiations, and adjustments to come to a final plan.
“New Jersey doesn’t need another office building,” Zucker said. “But what New Jersey does need and is hungry for is better office space and a place that’s people-centric where you’re not just showing up to a suburban sprawl office park where nothing is going on…
“(People) are going to New York. They’re going to Philadelphia. They go to Red Bank. They go to New Brunswick. They go places with a little bit of a street scene, a little bit of an urban vibe. That’s what they want.”
And since that’s what they want, that’s what Bell Works will be, Zucker says.
REMAKING THE SUBURBS
Before you can understand what Bell Works will be, Zucker wants to make it clear what it is not.
It’s NOT a building. It’s a neighborhood.
It’s NOT a mall. It’s an urban street.
It’s NOT an office park. It’s a blend of work and life.
Zucker drives home the last point. In New York, you can leave your office, walk a block to have dinner, drinks, check out entertainment, go to a fitness club—it’s all there. Bell Works aims to do the same in Holmdel.
“Anything you can imagine in a small city will be here,” Zucker says of the $200 million project. “Except for morgues. We won’t have a morgue.”
Why would they? This facility is about life.
It’ll be open 24/7. The first floor will have 75,000 square feet of retail and restaurants as well as the Holmdel Public Library, a health club, and a surgical center. There will be a 200-room hotel, conference center, 300-seat auditorium, medical offices, industrial kitchen, and activated rooftops.
Surrounding the facility will be a residential development, which Toll Brothers purchased. They’ve started development on 185 carriage homes and 40 single-family houses.
PRESERVING THE SPIRIT OF INNOVATION
The Bell Labs facility was designed for collaboration. It consists of four buildings, each five stories, wrapped a quarter mile around with perimeter hallways. Anytime workers would step outside their office they would interact with someone else.
The massive atrium welcomes socializing and idea sharing, which was integral to the innovation of Bell Labs. Bell Works is capitalizing on that concept.
Chris Pallé and his company Vi, which is a co-working space and business incubator, has partnered with Bell Works to help foster a new ecosystem of innovation at the facility.
“We’re creating a culture of collaboration, of people getting together and networking as you work,” Pallé said of the co-working space at Bell Works. “We’re building a business incubator, and we knew we wanted to have the co-working vibe as the core piece of the culture for our business incubator.”
The incubator—which will be about 50,000 square feet and house a makerspace—will look to attract technology companies and startups and focus on innovative solutions, as well as the usability and marketability of those innovations.
Tech companies have shown the most interest in leasing space at Bell Works, according to Zucker.
One of the first tenants, Spirent, moved into the facility in February. The global telecom company is leasing 17,000 square feet of space.
“The potential of the project has brought a lot of excitement to our local team there,” said Ray Lee, who is in charge of global properties with Spirent. “Being a part of this whole revitalization of the area got everyone excited and I think they all want to be a part of that.”
SIGNS OF LIFE
Spirent is one of 11 tenants so far at the facility. While there is plenty of construction going on, Zucker expects to have about 100,000 square feet occupied by sometime in 2017.
“By the middle of next year, this place is going to feel alive,” Zucker said.
That’s welcome news to people associated with the rich history of the facility who were dismayed to see it wasting away for many years. Robert Wilson is one of those people. The Holmdel resident spent 31 years at Bell Labs and won the 1978 Nobel Prize for discovering background radiation.
“I followed along as various negotiations went on and contributed to a group here that sponsored a workshop on what could be done with the building,” Wilson said. “I was quite interested in not having the township burdened with something big but wanting to see the building saved. I think it’s worked out fairly well. I hope they’re successful in filling it. It’s certainly a huge undertaking to fill up 2 million square feet.”
A huge undertaking indeed. But this facility isn’t conducive to small ideas. That’s why everyone associated with Bell Works is inspired to dream big.
“The building is designed to make you think big and make you work on really big ideas,” Pallé said. “That’s what happened here, and that’s what’s going to continue to happen here. That’s what’s being revitalized.”
Bell Works is bringing a new identity to an old building. TEDxNavesink Identity will explore every aspect of identity on April 8, 2017. Reserve your tickets today.