Abandoned Corporate Headquarters, Spurned Suburbs, and The End of Sprawl

GE Headquarters

GE Headquarters

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today that highlights the fallout from building sprawl. It explores US suburbs’ struggle to deal with abandoned corporate headquarters.

“Companies from General Electric to Weyerhaeuser are pulling their headquarters out of leafy* suburban campuses and moving downtown.”

The small communities that host these headquarters make huge infrastructure investments to accommodate these employers. They’re also asked to grant tax breaks to woo these companies. Even dinosaurs like Sears, a few years from extinction, can extract this type of benefit by playing one suburb or state against another. Unfortunately for towns like Upper Saddle River, outside of New York, which recently lost Pearson Education, these companies can’t extort the talent they need in the same way they extort the communities they occupy.

The headline of the story, Office Glut Strains Suburbs, might suggest to some that this is a simple supply problem. In a sense, that’s correct. But the oversupply isn’t merely the office space in the suburbs, it’s an oversupply of suburbs themselves. In the previous four decades, more and further out suburbs were created than had ever existed before. The cities were compliant in this, building the very highways that would pull population out of their centers and tax revenue out of their coffers.

That bubble has already burst. Not just because of companies retreating back to the cities or because of the way the recession hit car-dependent properties so much harder than walkable areas, but because sprawl is an experiment that has failed. Though there are people who wish to live in these communities, that demand has long since been satisfied. The question that will determine how Americans live in the future is no longer, “Should cities build denser more walkable communities?” it’s now, “Which cities will build those communities best and first, and which cities will cease to exist?”

*As a side note, can we kill the trope of the “leafy suburbs.” I live in the middle of downtown and as soon as the temperature gets above 40 degrees my neighborhood full of leaves. I’ve never had anyone tell me they wish there were some more leaves in this neighborhood. Leaves can/do exist in cities. Let’s not pretend we need to grow an acre of grass on each private lot for there to be green spaces.

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