By Robert Johnson
In recent years, a major change has taken place in what is considered a desirable location for office space, especially in large metropolitan areas. Much more emphasis is placed on providing employees with easy access to transit and amenities such as restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, over the last several decades an enormous amount of office space has been built that does not meet these new requirements. In many cases, a small Automated Transit Network (ATN) can help an older office park provide the accessibility that is now considered necessary.
Although an ATN can provide circulation within an office park, the applications considered here are primarily to connect the park with a high-volume transit station, typically on a heavy rail line.
The wide roadways and expansive parking lots typically found in older office parks can provide the space for easy installation of ATN guideways and stations, either elevated or possibly at grade. This is in contrast to CBD applications where space is at a premium and the visual intrusion of elevated guideways always a concern.
The potential benefits of even a small ATN can be seen by looking at a possible application in suburban Washington, DC. Because of government cutbacks over the past several years, demand for office space has declined, and this has affected even wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland, which is immediately northwest of DC. As of Q2 2015, at least nine office buildings over 100,000 square feet in size stood empty, and many more were underutilized. However not all office space in Montgomery County was affected equally. The vacancy rate for traditional auto-centric office parks was 19 percent, while the rate for space in mixed-use business districts was 9 percent, indicating the advantage of being near other activities.
One example of the benefits of being close to a transit station and other amenities can be seen in inner Montgomery County in the area around the White Flint station on the Washington Metro’s Red Line. In the immediate vicinity of the station there has been extensive recent development, including some office space, and much more is currently underway. However, 0.8 miles to the west is a cluster of three large office buildings that are completely empty. Two of these are shown in the photo. Not only are they beyond walking distance from the Metro station, they are at least half a mile from the numerous restaurants and shops near the station that employees might want to patronize at lunchtime and before and after work.
The access situation could be completely changed by a small ATN system. The simplest system would be a 0.8 mile two-way line running from the station to the three buildings. Without going into details, all of the streets along the route are divided arterials, and an elevated ATN system could be built along the medians. In addition to a station at each end, there could be one or two along the way, providing additional benefits. The end-to-end travel time would be under three minutes assuming a peak speed of 25 mph. This system would be comparable in size to the one at Heathrow airport, London, so there should be no question of technical feasibility.
According to public records, the two smaller of the three empty buildings last sold for a total of $73 million. For far less than this amount, a small ATN system could allow these buildings and others nearby to meet current demands for access to transit and amenities.