Today, Bell Labs – now known as Bell Works, is a one-of-a-kind destination for business and culture, complete with a blossoming ecosystem of technology, traditional offices, retail, dining, hospitality, and much more. It took the love and tenacity of a great number of people to bring this adaptive reuse to fruition.
In March 2006 Lucent announced it had sold the property to a developer, Preferred Real Estate Investments (PREI), who intended to raze the “obsolete” building in favor of a series of smaller corporate offices. This, of course, raised an outcry from preservation advocates and residents. In 2007, the township council created a nonpartisan citizens’ advisory board to evaluate the plans presented by PREI Properties to determine the best use of the property. PREI conducted a community outreach meeting on June 19, 2007, stressing the need for 300 homes on the property to make their project viable. Later that year, PREI Properties withdrew their purchase offer and the future of Bell Labs remained uncertain.
Also in 2007, a coalition of advocacy groups formed, including PNJ, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Citizens for Informed Land Use (CILU) of Holmdel, DOCOMOMO-US (Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement), the Recent Past Preservation Network, The Cultural Landscape Foundation and AIA-New Jersey. The Coalition to Save Bell Labs organized an educational/informational workshop in October 2007, conducted by renowned curator Donald Albrecht, for local citizens to learn about the history and significance of the building and its landscape. Subsequently, a charrette was held in April 2008 to discuss alternative, economically feasible options for the site.
In 2009, Somerset Development, a residential and mixed-use developer, proposed a plan to develop a “town center” at the Bell Labs property. The center would include rehabilitation of the Bell Labs Building into retail, dining, office, medical, higher education, event and residential space. Later that year, the Township of Holmdel released a report recommending demolition of the Bell Labs building and redevelopment of the site. Suggested uses included a private 18-hole golf course; private homes buffering the golf course on 4 to 5 acres marketed at approximately $2 to $3 million; 150 age-restricted detached homes; a state-of-the-art equestrian center; a movie studio; and recreational trails. Meanwhile, Somerset Development, the developer currently negotiating with Alcatel-Lucent to purchase Bell Labs, continued to try to work with the town of Holmdel to obtain a response to their development plans, which had thus far gone unacknowledged. A public open house hosted by Somerset at Bell Labs in September drew over 1,000 attendees. Township Committee members did not attend.
In 2010, The Coalition to Save Bell Labs was one of five advocacy groups involved in a March Summit hosted by PNJ, focusing on reinvigorating advocacy for previously listed “10 Most Endangered” places. Also in 2010, citing growing concerns about the cost of maintenance while the future of Bell Labs is decided, Alcatel-Lucent has given the Township of Holmdel and Somerset Development an ultimatum. If by March 2011, the two groups could not demonstrate collaboration and a commitment to moving forward with a redevelopment plan that would allow Alcatel-Lucent to sell Bell Labs, the owner would demolish the building.
By May of 2011 the then Mayor of Holmdel, Patrick Impreveduto, announced that Alcatel-Lucent delayed their deadline for an agreement between the township and Somerset Development until early fall of that year. The township committee designated the property as an “area in need of rehabilitation” on the same night, which allowed the township and Somerset Development to draft a much more detailed redevelopment agreement than had been previously presented.
In June of 2011, Holmdel leadership partnered with Somerset Development to host a public review of the current state of plans for Bell Labs. While Alcatel-Lucent’s fall deadline for a redevelopment plan loomed, Holmdel and Somerset Development were entertaining an array of potential uses for the Bell Labs building, including a health club, an ambulatory care facility, and a township library, in conjunction with the proposed residential uses. Holmdel introduced an ordinance in November 2011 that would adopt a new redevelopment plan for the Bell Labs property. The proposed plan acknowledged that preserving the central Bell Labs building was in the public interest. However, the plan also called for intensive new development throughout the surrounding Sasaki-Walker designed landscape. Advocates were encouraged by the plan’s recognition of the importance of preserving the Bell Labs building, but were concerned about efforts to develop the surrounding landscape, which is an integral part of this property’s overall significance.
In 2013, Holmdel named Somerset Development the official redeveloper of the Bell Labs who purchased the property from Alcatel-Lucent later that year. The project is now complete and occupied, and it was recently announced that Somerset Development will embark on a similar project for the AT&T corporate campus in Hoffman Estates, IL.
The only New Jersey building designed by world-renowned architect Eero Saarinen, this massive six-story research, and development facility, now part of Alcatel-Lucent, is a major work of mid twentieth-century modernism. Initially built between 1959 and 1962, the building was expanded in 1962 and 1985 to reach its current 2 million square foot dimensions. The rectangular lab’s most distinctive features are its grand atrium and mirrored glass exterior, as well as its site in a 472-acre designed landscape that is itself significant. At its peak, 6000 people worked in the facility. As home to Bell Labs for nearly half a century, the site spurred technological advancements that have literally shaped our worlds, such as the transistor and the cell phone. Bell Labs saw the work of six Nobel Prize winners and was the site of the discovery of radio astronomy by Karl Jansky in 1932. Among other breakthroughs, the empirical evidence that confirmed the “big bang” theory of the creation of the universe occurred at the Horn Antenna which is on the Crawford Hill site of Bell Labs.
Bell_atriumIn March 2006 Lucent announced it had sold the property to a developer, Preferred Real Estate Investments (PREI), who intended to raze the “obsolete” building in favor of a series of smaller corporate offices. Bowing to a storm of protest, the developer agreed to preserve the exterior of the first phase construction and the atrium, roughly one-third of the edifice. But he insisted on gutting the interior and replacing the distinctive mirrored glass on the exterior. Subsequently, PREI announced that the real estate market would not support as much office space as it had first estimated and that building 300 age-restricted residential units would be necessary to “unlock the value” of the property.
This is a difficult problem. Holmdel needs tax revenue from the nearly 500 acres property, but it is a groundwater recharge area that feeds a reservoir which a quarter of a million people drink from. The property should not be built beyond 20 percent coverage. The Mayor of Holmdel wants to “do the right thing,” and she has appointed a task force. PNJ thinks that the right thing must include preservation of a substantial portion, including its landscape setting, of this monument of 20th-century architecture.
Sam and Anne Shramko, Citizens for Informed Land Use