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A tradition of technology: Bell Works turning into hotbed of software, tech firms

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Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development, is leading a $200 million redevelopment effort at what is now known as Bell Works.
Ralph Zucker, president of Somerset Development, is leading a $200 million redevelopment effort at what is now known as Bell Works. - ()

In less than a year, Somerset Development has attracted a half-dozen software and technology firms to the former Bell Labs complex in Holmdel.

While that may seem like an obvious fit, Ralph Zucker says it wasn’t by design.

“We, early on, did not identify tech as a sector,” said Zucker, president of Somerset Development. “Tech identified Bell Works.”

However it happened, that connection has catapulted the developer’s effort to reincarnate the landmark building as a dynamic, mixed-use destination. To date, the firm has leased 170,000 square feet to startups and other tech firms, bringing the first new tenants and hundreds of employees to the 2 million-square-foot property since it was shuttered by Alcatel-Lucent in 2007.

That includes a commitment late last month by WorkWave, a software solutions firm, to relocate from Neptune to the Holmdel site. It was Bell Works’ largest and most high-profile deal so far, totaling 72,000 square feet, and the firm has the option to double its space.

FILLING UP FAST
Anchored by technology firms, Bell Works has leased some 200,000 square feet of office space since last year. Here is a look at the tenant mix at the 2 million-square-foot complex in Holmdel:

WorkWave 72,000 sq.ft.
Provider of cloud-based field service and management solutions
Symbolic IO 42,000 sq.ft.
Data storage tech startup
Acacia Communications 26,000 sq.ft. A designer of cloud-based
communications services
Spirent Communications 17,000 sq.ft.
Makes equipment that helps engineers test telecommunications systems
McCann Systems 7,000 sq.ft.
Advises businesses on their use of audiovisual technology
Vi Coworking 6,500 sq.ft.
A collaborative networking hub and coworking space
Suttons International 5,000 sq.ft.
An international logistics company
NVIDIA 4,500 sq.ft.
Developing software for autonomous cars

But it was a deal of about half that size that first sparked the momentum last summer, Zucker said. Symbolic IO, a startup focused on data storage, leased 42,000 square feet to become the first tenant at the property — that’s when it all started to click.

“Once we got noticed by the tech sector, it became very clear to us that we are perfectly suited for tech companies,” Zucker said, pointing to “the ethos, the design character, the collaborative nature of the space, the huge floorplates and the live-work-play environment that allows people to come here and move around and have everything they need.”

Technology and software firms have been drawn to large floorplates  available at Bell Works in Holmdel. -Photo Courtesy Somerset Development
Technology and software firms have been drawn to large floorplates available at Bell Works in Holmdel. -Photo Courtesy Somerset Development

Such a vision is what drew Zucker to the 472-acre property nearly a decade ago, giving way to years of consensus-building for a redevelopment plan and ultimately acquiring it in 2013. Since then, his firm has forged ahead with a $200 million plan to create a mixed-use center with “an urban vibe,” built around a pedestrian “street” within the building’s quarter-mile-long atrium.

The effort has also attracted tenants outside the tech sector. Somerset has leased 5,000 square feet to Suttons International, an international logistics firm, and Zucker said he has letters of intent with an accounting firm and a placement agency.

He believes the site is appealing to all companies “that want to move out of the office park mindset,” but it was the WorkWave deal that “validates our vision.” He noted the company is 50 percent millennials and needed a space that could attract the right talent to support its rapid growth.

A NEW ERA OF INNOVATION
Bell Labs has long been synonymous with New Jersey’s best and brightest, having been home to seven Nobel Prize winners and groundbreaking research over more than four decades.
That tradition of innovation appears to be continuing.
The first tenant to lease space at what is now Bell Works, Symbolic IO, is a 4-year-old startup led by former HP Chief Technology Officer Brian Ignomirello. It has grabbed headlines in recent weeks for technology that is being seen as a breakthrough in data storage.
That’s a point of pride for Ralph Zucker, whose firm, Somerset Development, is redeveloping the former Bell Labs property.
“We’re proud that a lot of that development work was done here, and our first tenant to move in has already created a major impact,” Zucker said.

Once the largest vacant office space in the country, the former Bell Labs in Holmdel is finding new life, thanks to an influx of new tenants. -Photo Courtesy Somerset Development
Once the largest vacant office space in the country, the former Bell Labs in Holmdel is finding new life, thanks to an influx of new tenants. -Photo Courtesy Somerset Development

“We know that having WorkWave come here is a giant step in the right direction, and there are quite a few companies that are now accelerating their conversations with us on taking space in the building,” Zucker said. “And our brokers are really touring the space and have been for a while.”

All told, Somerset has leased about 20 percent of the available 1 million square feet of office space. Zucker expects to reach about 50 percent in the coming months, with the Garibaldi Group serving as the broker for that effort.

As that pace quickens, so will the momentum for the other segments of Bell Works. The property includes about 100,000 square feet for retail that is overseen by Colliers International, and Zucker said the team is already busy.

“That’s having an effect also on the retailers that were sort of waiting in the wings to see who’s coming, and (they) see that the vision is actually proving out,” he said. “The building is alive today already, and within a few months there’s going to be so many more people that now we’re really getting a lot more activity.”

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