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The center of it all: In Holmdel, Bell Works project aims to be a curator of knowledge

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Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker during a recent tour of the historic Bell Labs building in Holmdel, which his firm is redeveloping as a vast mixed-use, urban style project known as Bell Works.
Somerset Development President Ralph Zucker during a recent tour of the historic Bell Labs building in Holmdel, which his firm is redeveloping as a vast mixed-use, urban style project known as Bell Works. - (Photo / )
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Flanked by renderings and an aerial map of the Bell Labs campus, Ralph Zucker sat in a conference room at the historic building as he outlined his plans for transforming it into a mixed-use, urban-style destination unlike anything you'd find elsewhere in suburbia. Fittingly, the space won't be a conference room for much longer.

That’s because the room is slated to become part of a hotel and meeting facility that will transform nearly a quarter of the 2 million-square-foot building in Holmdel. It will be a four-star “knowledge center” that caters to Wall Street, pharmaceutical firms and other sectors, Zucker said, while drawing an estimated 600,000 visitors to the site annually.

“It works well with the space, it works great with the location and it’s incredible when you talk about the history of what was here,” Zucker said. “This has always been a place for a collaborative approach to problem-solving. The building is uniquely suited for that.”

The Somerset Development president has long sought to embrace the history of Bell Labs while looking ahead to its next incarnation. For decades, the iconic glass-encased building housed Nobel Prize winners and groundbreaking research that led to inventions such as the cell phone, only to become another vacant office campus when Alcatel-Lucent closed its doors in 2007.

But after years of negotiating with township officials — and securing the community buy-in needed for such a massive undertaking — it’s now full steam ahead for the $200 million project known as Bell Works. Contractors now work at the property on a daily basis, replacing floors, restoring elevators and gutting vacant offices to prepare for new tenants.

And the vision of bringing new users to the space is now on the verge of reality.

Somerset has a letter of intent with the high-end hotel operator that will manage the 251-key facility, Zucker said. The firm also will manage the conference space for the entire property, which has a signature five-story atrium the length of three football fields.

That deal comes as talks continue with a range of office tenants. Zucker’s brokers have shown the space to tech firms, telecom companies and other users who are drawn to the space, the location and the legacy of the building.

Through late February, the firm was in discussions with more than 500,000 square feet worth of prospective tenants, seeking between 20,000 and 300,000 square feet.

“I think the hotel deal has been phenomenal in helping solidify interest, because a lot of these companies want to see … it brought to a reality,” Zucker said, noting that he’s held joint meetings there with hotel executives and potential tenants. “Interest has peaked tremendously.”

It’s only the start of the payoff for what was a painstaking saga for all parties involved. Bell Labs’ departure left Holmdel with a defunct office building like the kind seen all across New Jersey, only this one happened to be the largest vacant space in the country.

Zucker’s firm first became interested in the property in 2008, making an offer just as “the economic world stopped spinning.”

“It became very clear that this was not going to be just another office space,” he said. “And as much as we were enamored with the building, the primary rule in real estate is don’t fall in love with your real estate.”

Somerset altered its contract to make it contingent on entitlements that would turn Bell Labs into a mixed-use destination, he said. And that took nearly six years to get done.

The stakes were just as high for the township and its more than 16,000 residents. Committeeman Patrick Impreveduto said the building in its heyday accounted for nearly 20 percent of the town’s property taxes — some $4 million — a number that fell precipitously once Bell Labs packed up.

And there was no shortage of debate about how to repurpose the 472-acre property in order to recoup that tax revenue.

“It took a lot of negotiating and then it took a lot of meetings with the public just to inform them,” said Impreveduto, who was Holmdel’s mayor from 2008 through 2014. “And that’s the most important thing — we had to communicate with them (about) what was going there and what type of impact it would have on the community.”

Settling on the mixed-use concept of Bell Works — with 40 single-family homes and 185 age-restricted townhomes surrounding it — allowed Holmdel to take the steps necessary for Somerset to close on the property in late summer 2013. And that meant Zucker could finally assemble the team of all-star architects, engineers and other experts needed to carry out the ambitious plan.

The team hit its stride late last summer, he said. By then, work crews had started clearing the atrium of remnants from Bell Labs such as huge concrete planters and cubicles, allowing visitors to start seeing the vision of a bustling, mixed-use complex.

Somerset is now upgrading the atrium while still keeping many of the historic features, such as the egg crate-style finishes that cover the lighting and the hundreds of Corten steel skylights with a rust-like appearance.

And Zucker said the retail component is coming together. The firm has lined up tenants such as a high-end Italian restaurant and a gourmet market operator that could start serving food by the spring, and the building will also house a new library for Holmdel.

In the meantime, Bell Works is already proving its worth as a gathering space of the next generation. In recent months, the building has hosted functions such as photo shoots and gatherings of former Lucent scientists.

That’s exactly how Zucker always saw it.

“The intent from the beginning was this is a collaborative space designed and built for so many different things to fit together,” he said. “What’s exciting is that they’re actually coming together. And the more they come together, the more interest we have and the more pressure for space.”

No ordinary walk

One of the most noteworthy features of the Eero Saarinen-designed building are the interior walkways that surround it, separating its iconic all-glass façade from the rest of the space. Somerset Development is not only embracing that feature, but plans to enhance it by knocking down the inside wall around the building and replacing it with another perimeter of floor-to-ceiling glass.

Currently, it’s “a glass box with four buildings inside” — four buildings that have metal or Sheetrock exteriors, he said. That will be replaced by a “modern glass skin.”

“The light was on the perimeter, but it never filtered into the spaces,” Zucker said. “And the most ambitious part of what we’re doing here is reskinning all four buildings.”

The first tenant

While the renaissance of Bell Works is far from complete, its new tenants already include the firm that is leading the transformation of its 2 million square feet of space.

Last fall, Somerset Development moved its headquarters to the Holmdel building from Lakewood. Zucker said the site is more convenient to its projects in northern New Jersey and New York City, plus it’s a popular meeting space.

“People love coming here. So even when we have a meeting, whether it’s a government agency or political people, we can always call the meeting here and it’ll happen,” Zucker said. “So we find out conference rooms are used constantly, whereas when we were in our old office, we always were traveling to everybody, so location-wise it was great.”

Creating a home

It may be easy to overlook the planned residential portion around Bell Works — Toll Bros. is building 40 single-family homes and 185 age-restricted townhomes — but there’s no understating its importance.

“It was crucial for two reasons,” Zucker said. “Financially and (with) the high cost of rehabilitating this building, it just needed that early financial shot in the arm that the sale of the residential to Toll provided.

“Also, it helps create a place. Having people living here 24/7 at the end of the day makes a difference,” he said. “It connects the residential world, because we don’t want a place that’s going to die at night.”

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