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Is the Office Park Dead in Westchester?

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With the shifting nature of office culture following the pandemic, one writer explores the decline of the office park in the 914.

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles, staring at computer screens all day.”

—from the 1999 film Office Space

The suburban office park is all but dead. It had been ill for quite a while, suffering from a series of disruptive 21st-century maladies — among them technological obsolescence, recessionary fits of corporate downsizing, and COVID-19, which spawned persistent work-from-home preferences made possible by the advent of Zoom.

The corporate-park concept was about 60 years old; its date of expiration is hard to pinpoint, but like a fading heart hooked to an EKG, its raison d’etre has clearly flatlined. Twenty years ago, Westchester’s office vacancy rate was 13.2%; today, according to some estimates, it is almost twice that and rising.

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The undisputed father of Westchester’s network of office parks was developer Lowell Schulman, whose crown jewel was the Platinum Mile, an unofficial moniker (and misnomer) for a four-mile stretch of Westchester Avenue that parallels I-287 in Harrison and White Plains. Marketing nicknames for Westchester, like Golden Apple, generally don’t stick, but the Platinum Mile — the coining of which Schulman reportedly credited to a Harrison town engineer named Nick Penna — has had a lasting association with the county.

Schulman started with 325 acres of rocky, undeveloped land in 1963 and turned it into a bonanza. Lured by Westchester’s quiet, pastoral confines and its amenities (CEOs love to play golf), major corporations fled the big city and settled in architecturally bland, box-shaped office buildings noted for their bone-white façades, tinted windows, manicured lawns, and huge parking lots.

One such complex was the secluded IBM headquarters, a 560,000-square-foot colossus that opened in 1964 at 1133 Westchester Ave. Built to accommodate 2,200 employees, its central building resembled an airline terminal, and indeed, its front parking lot looked large enough to land planes on.

Schulman was a rock star in the world of commercial real estate because buildings like 1133 Westchester generated millions of dollars in property tax revenue, reinforcing Westchester’s reputation as a beacon of progress and opportunity. In a 1979 article for the Gannett newspapers, then-business editor Geoff Thompson hailed the Platinum Mile’s developer as a visionary, writing, “No other individual has done more to the set the pace and change the face of the county than Schulman.”

In short, a new species was introduced to Westchester — the reverse commuter who drove to work.

The ambitious plan was to build a new office park project every year. That seems laughable now.

Phil Reisman

Photo by Stefan Radtke

Twenty years ago, Westchester’s office vacancy rate was 13.2%; today, according to some estimates, it is almost twice that and rising.

“Nothing is forever,” a philosophical Schulman told a New York Times reporter in 2012. Nevertheless, he predicted that new businesses would fill the void.

Indeed, the transformation was already underway well before Schulman died in 2017. Enabled by revolutionary zoning changes, not a few of Westchester Avenue’s aging offices and underutilized parking lots were sold off and targeted as teardowns. In their place have sprouted anything but office space, ceding to such large-scale businesses as Wegman’s and Lifetime Fitness Center, the latter of which was built on the former Gannett site where I once worked. (I choose to believe that the kiddie pool is located where my office used to be.)

Some have called this suburban phenomenon “The Great Repurposing.” And so it is. But the biggest change along the Platinum Mile is just getting underway — the construction of apartment residences.

Westchester’s population topped the million mark for the first time, according to the 2020 census. For better or worse, a lot of people want to live here.

Remember that former IBM headquarters I mentioned earlier? Not long ago, I took a drive up the corporate drive and was startled to see that the entire back end of the parking lot had been taken over by three unfinished, four-story residential buildings that will include 300 rental units. The complex will have a swimming pool.

A few doors down, another 360 apartments are slated to replace a building at The Exchange office complex, at 701-777 Westchester Avenue — despite spirited protests from five White Plains homeowners’ associations. On the other side of I-287, next to Lifetime Fitness, 460 units are being built on the site of a demolished office building.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, it is possible that the news of the office park’s death has been exaggerated.

But I don’t think so.

Someday, they’ll put sidewalks and bike lanes on Westchester Avenue — and then we’ll really know that the cubicle culture has been forever canceled.

*Phil Reisman’s October Back Talk column, “Jurassic Office Park,” failed to mention that a proposal to build 360 apartments at 701-777 Westchester Ave. in White Plains was ultimately rejected by the White Plains Common Council.

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