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Seven years later, reuse plan for Bell Labs building gets local approval

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Ralph Zucker reviews plans of an unrelated development in this file photo. Somerset Development got local approval for the adaptive reuse of the former Bell Labs building last night.
Ralph Zucker reviews plans of an unrelated development in this file photo. Somerset Development got local approval for the adaptive reuse of the former Bell Labs building last night. - (NJBIZ file)

Local officials in Holmdel have cleared the path for Somerset Development to reincarnate the massive Bell Labs research campus there, following seven years of discussions over one of the state's most high-profile vacant office sites.

The township's planning board on Tuesday night approved plans by the Lakewood-based firm, which call for preserving the iconic, 2 million-square-foot building while repurposing it with a mix of uses, the developer said. Plans call for the project to be anchored by 400,000 square feet of medical office space, driving demand for other uses like retail, education, hospitality and assisted living space at the 472-acre property.

Somerset has signed a contract with Bloomfield-based Community Healthcare Associates to fill the medical space, said Ralph Zucker, the firm's president. That's also allowed Somerset to start negotiations with other tenants, such as a law firm that's interested in space, he said, and he hopes to seek permits for tenant fit-outs in the near future.

A rendering of the interior of the repurposed Bell Labs project.

"Things like that are starting to happen," Zucker said. "Until we had the site plan approval, we really couldn't go to the market. Now we can … so within next two months, you can expect to see some real market activity."

The planning board approvals changed zoning of the property from a single-tenant research hub, used for decades by the Bell system, to multiple uses outlined in the redevelopment plan. Zucker said the board also voted to reconfigure the site into five lots, one of which will house 225 residential units that will require separate approvals. Somerset has contracted with Toll Bros. Inc. to oversee the residential component.

The Holmdel Independent, which first reported the approvals, said the planning board's vote followed six hours of combined testimony over two hearings. Residents concerns touched on areas including traffic and how the building would be updated to accommodate the new population there.

Bell Labs, which became a piece of Alcatel-Lucent, vacated the building in 2006. Since then, it's been an odyssey: Zucker's team has engaged residents and township officials to forge a plan that was palatable for the historic property. At one point last year, Alcatel-Lucent considered selling the property to a different developer. Zucker said his firm continued to be involved in the planning even then, but Somerset took the lead once again last fall.

"The heavy lifting was more done in 2009 and 2010, when the community began to embrace the vision of what was going to be here," he said. "So by 2012, when the redevelopment was approved, we had a lot of work to do, but that was already working toward a goal and a vision that was pretty much shared."

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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